Already, in my first two months as a senior at Williamson High School, I have completed several in class presentations, speeches and the like. I have definitely experienced that sweaty palmed, dry mouthed, “Oh darn I forgot what I planned to say for this slide” feeling numerous times. In addition, I have also seen several of my classmates sweat, stammer and stress over one of the biggest fears in America.
It’s not contained to just in class presentations with a bunch of teenagers, but also to large assemblies, morning and afternoon announcements, and everyday conversations. No matter what public circumstance one is in, there is always room for a subtle, vocal expression of discomfort. Everyone’s method of expressing this discomfort is different, as well all know. However, one grunt stands out above the rest as the mother of all uncomfortable expressions.
This must be the most common word spoken in my school. Especially among the students. It’s everyone’s preferred expression of discomfort. It is as if we are all afraid to leave any voids in our speeches or conversations. Maybe if we fill the silence with “um”, “aaahhh”, “sooo”, “uhhh”, it will make everyone more comfortable and avoid gaps of silence.
But we all know that this isn’t really true.
Do you ever listen to someone speak at a public formal event, and notice how many times they use these fillers? I feel as though in our society, it is almost an indication of insecurity and uneasiness about public speaking. I know that whenever I listen to politicians or esteemed individuals speak, I almost develop an immediate reverence for their stage presence because of the confidence that they emit while at the podium. “I know what I want to say. No ‘ums’ needed here.” In fact, I believe that when students in public speaking classes are taught about delivery of ideas, they are strongly cautioned to stay away from such fillers.
I struggle with this glaring indication of anxiety. This morning, I stood up in front of an auditorium full of my peers to make an announcement about an upcoming community service project. As the president of the organization that is running the event, I was elected for my supposed “comfort with public speaking.”
Turns out, not so much.
The event that I was publicizing was a Blood Drive sponsored by the Red Cross. I had an entire, intelligent sounding speech all planned out in my head. As soon as I saw the faces of 400 teenagers, all adorned with faces of ennui, I began to shake in my boots.
“So. . .so hi. This is just a reminder about the . . .um. . . -- We will be having a blood drive here next week. . .uhh . . . in the auditorium. . .just keep in mind that a blood transfusss. . .blood transfusion is need in the U.S. every two seconds. . .um. . .please consider donating?”
Awkward. Terribly awkward.
I honestly envy those with fluid public speaking skills because though I have developed a sharp ear for the presence of “ums” in a speech, I am not exempt from their use. Oh how I long to hurdle over the restraint of insecure speech.
So why “um”? Where did it come from?
All of the sources that I read to try and understand this expression of discomfort gave me similar answers to the question. One that I found particularly useful was the idea that “um” is a natural and comfortable syllable for our mouths to speak. The “m” allows us to rest our lips while our minds think of the words that we desire to speak. I notice this a lot in my own elongation of that final “m”. I hold it out during my discomfort because it is easier and requires less facial exertion than say, “ah” or “er”.
These linguistic fillers are found in nearly every language and dialect. While some languages have legitimate linguistic fillers, that is, have expressions of discomfort that are actually words, a lot of other languages share the tendency of my high school and most of America. We spew out some random syllable in the hopes that it will increase the fluidity of our speech while say, the Punjabi use the word matlab, or, “it means.”
The real question here is should we use “um” in our everyday language? No doubt, these fillers have little place in public speaking, but is this indication of insecurity and ignorance that comes from the use of “um” in the professional world the same as our everyday conversations? Though I desire to end all of my “um’s” I can see the flip side that in everyday simple language, especially that of high school, “um” has no effect upon the comprehensiveness of a conversation or the surface-level intelligence of a person. I guess this language faux-pas depends on your point of view.