Ever think about what you're saying when you're not actually saying anything?
If you just thought "um, not really," you're more likely to be a woman.
University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman has studied the use of filler words extensively across demographics, including gender. In a recent post on Language Log, he shared data showing that women are more likely to use "um" and men are more likely to use "uh" during pauses in conversation.
Referencing transcripts of recorded telephone conversations collected by the University of Pennsylvania's Linguistic Data Consortium, Liberman tracked the use of "filled pauses" among 11,972 speakers. Women used "um" 22 percent more often than men. Men used "uh" 250 percent more than women. Overall, men used filler words -- either "um" or "uh" -- 38 percent more often than women.
There's actually plenty of evidence of an "um"/"uh" gender divide. Why men and women use different filler words is less clear, as is whether the use of "um" and "uh" is a reflection of the speaker's preference, or their preemptive reaction to the listener.
Interestingly, to whom we are speaking might influence how much filler language we use. Liberman found that men used "uh" 14 percent less often when speaking to women, while women used "uh" 20 percent more often when speaking to men. Men use "um" 8 percent more often when speaking to women, while women use it about 1 percent less often when speaking with men.
Why would men tone down the "uh" but up the "um" when speaking to women? Why do women go heavier on the "uh" when speaking to men? Why are there gender differences at all?
"Short answer: I don't know, and as far as I know, no one else does either," Liberman told The Huffington Post in an email. But the variation may have something to do with the particular functions "um" and "uh" serve in conversation. "It's easy to think of stories about functional differences that might explain the patterns of variation with age, sex, educational level, and even geography," Liberman said.
Obviously, men and women are no more biologically inclined to "um" than to "uh." What "conversational functions" might men and women tend to perform differently, and how do "um" and "uh" serve them?
It's impossible define what we're really saying when we say "um" or "uh," but there are some useful parameters. We might use "um" as we decide whether to speak, but "uh" as we decide what to say. Pausing to say "um" may even be a polite indication that one doesn't want to dominate the conversation, while someone who says "uh" probably intends to keep talking.
In general, women hesitate to speak up more than men, and are more likely to use weaker language when they do. Could women's use of "um" signal reluctance to hold the floor, and men's use of "uh" an attempt to hold on to it?
We asked Lieberman, who told us that "differences in floor-grabbing vs. floor-holding functions, differences in what [some] call 'insecurity' and others might call 'politeness,' are all possible stories. As usual, it'll take more research to figure out which such stories are true."
Ultimately, "um"/"uh" usage is product of one's social environment, and the role of gender conditioning can't really be broadly determined. In fact, women exchanged the more demure "um" for the holding-the-floor "uh" 20 percent more often when speaking to men, Liberman determined. Given that men generally interrupt women, up to up to three times more than other men, perhaps we're leaning in one "uh" at a time.
In general, "um" is on the rise among the general population as "uh" usage appears to be declining. Since linguistic change often starts with women, perhaps you can thank us for a generally more "polite" society.
But don't feel too bad about it, fellas. The "uh"ers among you are in good company.