How many times a day do we come out with a sentence like this: ‘It was, like, a sort of profound experience, d’you know what I mean?’ About 50% of that was filler that adds nothing to the content of the sentence, and there are good arguments for expunging it from the lexicon. Yet the numerous verbal tics, tags and fillers that litter our everyday speech are not entirely meaningless. They don’t add to the message, but they sure say something about how we relate to communication itself and what we are attempting to achieve by it.
Here are some of the most common conversational fillers plumbed for deeper meanings:
- To be honest
What, you weren’t being honest before?
Alternative: I’m not gonna lie
It’s a strange thing to have to declare truth at every turn, when language is designed to communicate things, which means referring to real things. These phrases remind us of the quirks of language that complicate this function; it reveals that we’re capable of hiding or distorting the truth; it’s a declaration of honesty using a medium that, at the same time, the admission shows to be potentially dishonest.
- If you ask me
Normally precedes an unsolicited opinion.
This one is interesting because it refers to the interlocutor without the interlocutor having actually opened a question; and because it narrates the fact that a conversation is happening (‘You just asked me a question and I am now responding’). It refers to the communication as though to reassure conversationalists that they are participating in something, which should surely be unnecessary.
- Well, …
This very common lexical filler typically fills in the hesitant pause before an admission that all is not well.
- How’s the project coming along?
- Well, there’s been a slight delay, actually …
I can envisage this originating as a way of showing polite assent before telling the truth:
- How are you?
- Well, my lord; but for a tickle in the throat
The response could easily become ‘Well, my lord, I have a tickle in the throat’.
- If you know what I mean
If you need to ask, then your breath would be better spent explaining what you mean. The listener shouldn’t need prompting to understand you, or questioning about whether they do; this should be obvious from their engagement with your words. This is a sure sign that your communications aren’t functioning as desired – or at least that you’re afraid they’re not.
- You know?
Alternatives: You see? Innit?
Similar to #4, but less lengthy, which means that, tacked on to the end of a phrase, it may serve to reinforce the dialogic nature of the communication without hindering the transmission of meaning. Yet it’s still a tic, so I wonder whether it could also be an obsessive reflex echoed by a generation desperate for a voice, and angsty about being known and understood.
This one has different incarnations:
- ‘It was, like 10pm’ – I think this is just lazy imprecision.
- ‘She was, like, really discombobulated’ – This could mean two things. It could be embarrassment on the part of a speaker self-conscious about proclaiming intelligence using ‘big words’, or worried about wrongly applying them. Alternatively, it could be reluctance at using a higher register, which is typical of a generation that shies away from anything seen as over-engaged (being ‘keen’), ‘try-hard’ (better to be cool and detached), or elitist.
- ‘I was really, like, confused and angry’ – Here, the filler serves to flag a genuine struggle for expression: it’s an attempt to make a comparison (‘my emotion was similar to anger but not quite that’), or to soften the words when attempting to express a much more complicated meaning.
- Yeah, but …
Like the possible original function of ‘well’, this one signals assent and deference to the interlocutor while attempting to respond truthfully. It says ‘Your point is valid, but here is a better point’, or ‘I agree with you, but not wholly’. It oils the wheels of debate by softening the blow of disagreement, and ensuring that the interlocutor feels validated and listened to. It’s a positive response that one can use to placate those who throw out a ‘you know?’ every other minute.
- You’re joking!
You don’t actually think the other person is joking; you don’t in fact quite believe their words, but it would be inappropriately strong to accuse them of fibbing (‘You’re lying!’). Instead, introducing the reference to humour ensures that your reaction of shock does not emerge as rudeness. While humour seems out of place in what is likely to be a serious discourse, perhaps with high emotional stakes, it’s worth bearing in mind that in many comedic situations humour is naturally created by shocking the audience or providing them with an unexpected incongruity. It’s a socially acceptable way of reacting to shocking news, where accusatory shouting is not.
‘Just’ means ‘only’ and implies scarcity and smallness. It has no place in ‘Oh, I just work in the City’ or ‘Can I just ask whether … ?’. The use of ‘just’ minimizes the question or concern or achievement that’s being discussed, which shoots the speaker in the foot. It could also damage the work or reputation of others, if the speaker has responsibility for teams or projects. We know that it has this effect, because we use the word when consciously attempting to minimize responsibility or limit damage: ‘It was just a joke’ or ‘I was only trying to get a reaction’. Overuse of ‘just’ has been counselled against for women in the workplace as a way of asserting instructions or opinions, of backing themselves. We should probably just avoid it.
So many of these conversational fillers are designed to explicitly check that a functional discourse is still in place. The communication self-commentates, narrates itself as mutual and functional as a way of embedding the experience, ensuring both participants know not only what the other is saying but also what they are participating in. Rather than relying on the other party’s responses to imply both that communication is present and that its content is mutually understandable, these tics are also there to attempt to explicitly ensure that both parties are being heard and understood.
For all the purpose of language may be to express and refer, the possibility for dishonesty alluded to above is clearly so potent that we need to make clear at every turn what type of communication this is. Both the uncertainty around that dishonesty and the ambiguity of any form of expression, and the desperate need for reassurance and validation, stem from what I think is a millennial trend of anxiety centering on a perception that each person is an island, fuelled by trends in philosophy and public discourse (the inability to know things outside of one’s own mind; the marginalized and oppressed pitted against the privileged). Our closedness in our own minds and others in theirs results in these perceived difficulties with communicating and connecting (no doubt also fuelled by the transferral of much communication to the digital sphere), and this diminished certainty that we are loved and understood.
‘I want your opinion; I count on your honesty; I understand you; I will not judge your words or your reaction to mine; you are amazing’. Even though I’ve undoubtedly overthought (for fun!) the meanings hidden in what is likely to be lazy, throwaway use of words, these are things we could all do with hearing once in a while, you know?
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