It’s Okay to Like “Like”

Well, like, um, you know…

They’re those little words that people slip into conversations during a pause, or when they’re trying to collect their thoughts. Called “filler words” because they fill these pauses to indicate that the speaker is not done talking, they serve an important linguistic purpose—yet people who use them are widely derided as shallow and unintelligent.

Women in particular are often criti­cized for sounding like “dumb valley girls” when they use fillers, even by feminists. Take the word “just” for ex­ample, as in “I just wanted to let you know…” Former Apple executive Ellen Petry Leanse has described this word as a “child” word and a “subtle message of subordination,” which she thinks wom­en use more than men because they are encouraged to act more apologetic, and are criticized for being too demanding if they speak more directly.

Women are in fact no more likely to use filler words than men. So why do people assume they do? It’s probably because of stereotypes that mark women as shallow, airheaded, and overemo­tional, giving men an excuse to not listen to them.

Yet corporate feminists continue to perpetuate this fiction, telling women that in order to get ahead, they need to act more like men (or how they think men act).

Besides, women aren’t held back in the workplace because of how they talk. They’re held back because of sexism. And blaming them for that is only going to perpetuate the problem.

What’s with all this focus on “the workplace” anyways? If one, usually white, woman makes it to the top of a company, it helps nobody but herself—and that corporation’s practices may harm working-class women, women of color, and even other women inside the company.

This isn’t just a women’s issue: scru­tinizing anyone’s manner of speaking—and refusing to take them seriously as a result—isn’t a very nice thing to do. Filler words are there for a reason; they indicate that people are thinking about the content of their speech. Instead of letting whatever garbage comes to mind spill out of their mouth, people who use filler words are spending time to think of how best to say what they’re trying to say.

Maybe you think they shouldn’t need so much time to think of what they want to say. In that case, think about something that you’ve always had to do slowly, or that doesn’t come naturally to you. Would you like it if people publicly mocked your difficulties and made negative assump­tions about your intelligence? Some people struggle a little with spoken lan­guage; some even have disabilities that impair their ability to verbally commu­nicate. Different things are hard for dif­ferent people, and it’s important to re­spect that, even if it means you don’t get to make quite as many clichéd jokes.

Psychologists have even found that people who use filler words tend to be more conscientious. So instead of getting angry at the next person to pepper their speech with “you know” and “um,” be thankful they’re making an effort—and return the favor by listening to the con­tent of what they’re saying.