we have public shamings about how often we say “um” and “uh”

A reader writes:

Every month, my work has a “pep rally” where the whole staff gets together to highlight what’s going on in each department. My boss, the executive director, has recently decided she wants to cure everyone of using the words “um,” “uh,” and “like” when they are talking. Her idea is that each pep rally, two people will present some sort of five-minute speech on their department and we will all watch and count how many times the person says “um,” “uh,” or “like.”

It’s horrible. It makes you overthink everything because you’re so conscious that all your peers are staring at you, waiting for your next “um.” A bunch of us call it “The Shaming.” It doesn’t seem to help and it makes people feel bad afterward. When you’re done, our boss announces how many times you said “um” and lets you know what else you could work on.

I just don’t think this is right. I get what my boss is trying to do, but I feel like there’s a better way to go about it. Would I be out of line if I said something to her about how I felt?

There’s a certain type of manager who’s unclear on appropriate boundaries and thinks it’s okay to use their position to carry out personal agendas that have nothing to do with people’s jobs (like this guy). This feels very much like your manager has a pet peeve and has decided to misuse the authority of her job — and misuse the time of her staff — to pursue something that really shouldn’t be this high of a priority.

It’s very unlikely that everyone on your staff has a job where using the occasional “um” or “uh” matters. Some do, no doubt, but it’s unlikely that it’s so important to everyone’s position that they need this kind of training.

Your boss would probably argue that everyone can benefit from becoming a more polished speaker. And sure, it’s a great skill to build if people want to.

But this isn’t the way to go about it. The public shamings are BS, even for the people who genuinely do need to be extremely polished when speaking. In general, people do better when they get critical feedback in private, not when they’re forced to stand in front of their peers while they’re critiqued.

I get “I wanted to be a teacher” vibes from the whole thing, but she’s dealing with adults who aren’t taking a class.

So no, you wouldn’t be out of line to speak up. But unless you have extremely good rapport with your boss — and maybe even then — you’ll be more effective if you and some of your coworkers speak up as a group, rather than if it’s just you.  The more of you saying “this feels demeaning and we want to stop,” the more likely you are to have an impact.

(You might also arm yourself with this take on “like” from Merriam-Webster and this one from linguists — for your own morale, if nothing else.)

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 451 comments… read them below }

  1. Sibley*

    Oh god, that’s horrible. I’d be tempted to keep track of how often THEY use filler words and throw that back, but that wouldn’t be helpful at all. Go with Alison’s advice.

    1. Ian Mac Eochagáin*

      That would be very tempting! And then to approach the manager and say, “I, um, was just wondering if you, er, had a moment or two to talk about, um…”

    1. Qmatilda*

      Nothing worse than reading your own deposition transcript with every single verbal tick caught and transcribed.

      1. Putting Out Fires, Esq*

        True. It just plays better with juries if you don’t sound *too* polished.

        The OP isn’t looking for speaking advice, but what I’ve found actually works is remembering that you’re the only one in the room who knows as much about what you’re saying as you do. That, and don’t be afraid to take a breath. Jot down a note. Flip pages. Let the silence ride. You run the show, it’s your well. Everyone can just wait until you’re good and ready.

        1. Lynxa*

          Ugh, That’s my problem. In person I sound normal, but in a deposition transcript I sound like a computer.

        2. hermit crab*

          It just plays better with juries if you don’t sound *too* polished.

          This is fascinating to me! I do a lot of public speaking in my volunteer job (science outreach stuff, museum demos, that kind of thing) and I intentionally add “like” and similar words to my little mental scripts. I’m often describing complicated information to tourists with literally no background on the topic, and I’ve found that this goes over much better if you sound like you’re sharing a friendly story rather than teaching at them. Since I’ve stared doing this, I’ve begun getting completely unsolicited comments from visitors on how good my demos are.

          1. Chassity*

            I do this as well when I give benefit presentations to employees, which are always held via online conference. I write out every word and pause that I think makes it sound more natural, including “likes” and “ums.”

          2. OhNo*

            It’s not an official part of my job, but I often end up explaining complicated things to people, too. In addition to what you both mention about having a few “ums” and “uhs” and making the tone more informal, I’ve found that sounding excited about the topic works wonders. No one notices my verbal tics when they’re caught up in my excitement about databases. :)

            1. hermit crab*

              Yes, totally. This weekend I was being super enthusiastic about insect lifecycles and a visitor’s reaction was, “Wow, that’s kind of gross, but you sure do tell a great story.”

            2. Daffodil*

              I think various pauses (ums, ahs, like, and so on) also make information easier to understand. It breaks up the stream of information into distinct thoughts and gives people a moment to understand what you’ve said before you launch into the next chunk of information. “Like” is also a warning that the next thing you’re going to say is an analogy or paraphrase and not literal. It’s verbal punctuation.

          3. The OG Anonsie*

            Oh yeah, I do this exact same thing. If you sound too formal, even in settings where you’d think it would make the listener feel at ease that you are A Real Expert, a lot of people will start to feel insecure about their level of understanding and will shut out a lot of what you say / stop engaging.

            I have also used this trick when speaking a foreign language I’m not good at, especially for oral exams in school. Sprinklings of whatever the equivalent “umm” or “you know,” “ish” type statements can make you sound like you have a way higher level of fluency than you actually do because it mirrors the way native speakers sound.

            1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

              My host mother in Italy would sprinkle filler words in her instructions to us when she would give us directions in Italian. It really did help break up the flow of longer sentences so we could follow.

        3. CoveredInBees*

          It also gives people’s brains a bit more time to process what they’re hearing.

          1. Stephanie*

            Yeah, I gave that feedback to a classmate when he did a research presentation. He talks super fast (but enunciates very well, so you don’t have problems understanding him). I was like “I would add in more pauses or slow down if possible…if you don’t, people have trouble processing all the information.”

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I was going to say, even when we moot we don’t require perfection—it sounds odd and untrustworthy. Some folks advise pausing in lieu of the ums/uhs/likes, but that really only works in appellate argument and still sounds off unless you’re Obama.

          Attorneys voluntarily sign up to moot (i.e., to have our presentation scrutinized), and we don’t even treat people the way OP’s manager is treating her reports. If presentation/polish is an issue, schedule specific times to help people work on this and videotape it, offering feedback in a safe, supportive and smaller group. Don’t subject staff to real-time scrutiny at a “pep rally” (is her creative terminology like The Lottery, where the prize is death by stoning?).

          This manager is being a real jerk (I’m trying to think of something stronger, but “asshole” doesn’t quite capture it).

          1. Zombii*

            >>If presentation/polish is an issue, schedule specific times to help people work on this and videotape it, offering feedback in a safe, supportive and smaller group.

            This letter sounds exactly like the call center I used to work at: the “pep rallies,” the unnecessary presentations from coworkers as learning experiences for the coworkers giving the presentations, the crusade against filler-words.

            Since the company wasn’t willing to invest time or money in a competent hiring strategy or personalized training for individual weaknesses, this is what we were left with. :(

    2. Mike B.*

      My grandboss uses “like” every other word, and his job is in large part to represent our department in presentations and meetings. And he’s one of the most respected and beloved people at the agency.

      This is not just demeaning, it’s unnecessary if giving presentations isn’t your exclusive or most important focus.

    3. mrs__peel*

      Indeed! I’m a health care attorney, and oral argument is a large component of my work. Even in that scenario, it’s not a big deal and judges really don’t care.

    4. Jaydee*

      I’ve recently gotten hooked on listening to a Supreme Court oral arguments on my commute. Most of the attorneys are well-spoken, but that doesn’t mean they never use filler words. If you can remember that the section of the regulation you want to refer to is 702.24(a)(2)(B)(iii) and you don’t need an “um” while you look at your notes to make sure then good for you. But even the Justices have their share of filler words because they are often asking spontaneous questions and need that extra second to formulate the question or find the right word. Excessive filler makes you sound unprepared or unsure of yourself. But occasional filler words are a natural part of conversational speech. Eliminating them completely makes you sound overly rehearsed and robotic.

    5. many bells down*

      My volunteer position is all public speaking and I sometimes *deliberately* inject the occasional “ah” and “um” to make my speeches sound less rehearsed and more friendly and conversational.

        1. many bells down*

          In my case, it’s supposed to sound like a dialogue – like the visitors are having a chat WITH me, not just me talking at them. In practice, it really is just me talking at them 95% of the time, but I’m supposed to give the impression of “friendly conversation”.

    6. Aveline*

      Supreme Court justices use them in informal settings. I’ve had a private chat with one (now deceased) and some friends of mine know some other ones.

      I’ve also heard Nobel prize winners use them.

      1. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

        Ugh, Scalia? I made him “um” a lot when I asked, if he is such a privacy advocate, why did he want to regulate sex and morality like in Lawrence v. Texas?

        The jist of his answer was that sex and morality are not private matters in the same way as letting your house be searched. Which I sort of get, but it made me want to snark “so people should sodomize each other on their front lawns?”

      2. Former Linguist*

        I should hope so! “Uh” and “uhm” are called disfluencies and they play an important role in our interactions with others. Most languages have disfluencies. There are rules about how you use them and whether you use “uh” or “uhm” –in fact, children often don’t pick up on these rules until they’re around 4, long after they’ve learned most other aspects of fluent speech.

        OK, impromptu linguistics lesson time is over. :-) The point is that everyone uses disfluencies, they’re cool as heck, and it’s horrifying that a supervisor would think it’s her job to “cure” you of them. As other commenters have noted, you’ll sound formal and weird if you never use them.

        All that said, the primary role of disfluencies is to signal that you want to continue to hold the floor. If you WANT to use them less, the previous commenter’s advice to try to remember that you have the floor (“everyone can wait until you’re good and ready”) is spot-on.

        1. Bess*


          I tried to explain this to an older woman who enrolled in an intro writing college class I was teaching–she interrupted my first day of class spiel to ask why I was saying “like” (!!!) when it’s “incorrect.” Tried to tell her about the linguistic functions of the word without distracting from the rest of the spiel. (I look younger than I am so particularly older students often perceived me as someone without authority or knowledge. Fun times.)

          I feel like a lot of people who get hung up on things like “um” and “like” are people who take comfort in the idea that they know “correct” grammar, even though grammar in speech rarely complies with written rules–at least in English.

          1. Rana*

            This is definitely true. I work with words and writing professionally (indexer and editor) yet my spoken speech is pretty casual. LOTS of “likes” and “ums” here.

            A big part of being a fluent user of language is knowing when – and how – to codeswitch.

        2. copy run start*

          Wow I wish we knew this in high school. We had to give a presentation to the entire class about our genealogy and it had to be at least 7 minutes long. More than a few “uhs” or “uhms” in a minute and you’d get marked down. I was so worried about those that I over-rehearsed and regurgitated my presentation in 5 minutes, even though I had a few friends strategically coughing to try and get me to slow down.

          Another kid I know had at least 65 “uhs” or “uhms” in his presentation (it was so bad that we did actually start counting — sitting through all these presentations took the last two months of school and we were deathly bored). I don’t know what his grade was but it must’ve been awful.

    7. Christin*

      I’m an audio engineer. My job is to polish up the ums and ahs. Because everyone says them. Some people can go a minute or two without it but they are rare like the unicorn. Honestly, 30 seconds without any verbal filler is pretty extraordinary.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        A local radio station does this as a game. Go up to people, and if they can speak on a random topic for 30 seconds without um, uh, or a long silent pause, they win! People don’t normally win.

        1. mdv*

          I don’t think I could, either, but it would be fun to try, if it’s for a prize!

        2. Lance*

          I remember stuff like this in the mornings sometimes, back when I still listened to the radio at all. Really interesting hearing the pauses and practically feeling people struggling back saying something like ‘um’ or ‘uh’.

        3. LesLibLon*

          In the U.K. we have a radio show called Just a Minute where celebs, comedians and the like are given a topic and have to talk for a minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Ums and ers catch people out pretty often! The other players get to buzz in if they think the speaker broke a rule – it’s genteelly cutthroat, I highly recommend it!

      2. boris*

        Glad I scrolled down before making a similar comment. I edit recorded lectures, given by people who are world leaders in their subject. They’re comfortable, they’ve given thousands of lectures, they know exactly what they’re talking about – and they say um and er all the time. I can pick out an um from the shape on the soundtrack – I bet you can too!

        People who don’t say um or er are usually working strictly from a script, and generally sound a lot more unnatural because of it.

    8. Creag an Tuire*

      Barack Obama was the gosh-darned President of America and, um, let me clear, he, uh, used filler words all the time.

      (I would say that this may or may not be a helpful example, depending on the lean of your manager, but on the other hand she’s a fan of the Current Occupant shereally doesn’t get to complain about stream-of-consciousness-speak.)

  2. Kowalski! Options!*

    Oh, man. Prescriptivists. (Sigh.)
    Speaking as someone with a background in linguistics (and a minor in dysfunctional work places), this just seems like a good recipe for getting people not to talk at all.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      That’d be a great option, actually. Get up and describe your department’s work with interpretive dance, but stay silent as a metaphor for the oppressive nature of late-stage capitalism.

      1. Bolt*

        I’m waiting for a letter next week from the horrified boss explaining that everyone is using interpretive dance to speak to her!

          1. Kowalski! Options!*

            “Your Annual Performance Review”, as presented by the Martha Graham Dance Company. It sounds like a cartoon from “The New Yorker”.

            1. Jessica*

              “You do an eclectic celebration of the dance! You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! Or Twyla, Twyla, Twyla! Or Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd! Or Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!… but you keep it all inside.” (from “The Birdcage”)

      2. Spoonie*

        That was beautiful. I’m imagining what this would look like in some of my old (terrible) stand up meetings and…I had to wipe away a tear.

      3. CoveredInBees*

        Give your speech in the form of patter song so there isn’t even time for “verbal filler”. Heehee!

      4. Nanc*

        I’m picturing the Buffy episode Hush. Bonus points if you can’t get The Gentlemen to help out in your presentation.

      5. Magenta Sky*

        Or do a five minute talk on how public shaming in the work place is abusive, and creates a hostile work environment.

        The other speaker that day can talk about passive/aggressiveness.

    2. Queen of the File*

      Honestly. “How to make a dreadful part of your job infinitely worse.”

    3. Parenthetically*

      Prescriptivists are the bane of my existence.

      I’d be tempted to get up and give a talk on how discourse markers are not only a normal and necessary part of ordinary extemporaneous speech, they can signal that the speaker is empathetic and thoughtful.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        I always get the creeps when discourse markers are missing in casual speech. Like, I expect it in a consequential formal speech, like a State of the Union address or something, but if someone doesn’t say uh or ah at all, it alienates me rapidly.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            It’s not that I notice it specifically, but there’s a stiffness that comes into speech when it’s stripped of those markers, and I notice it subconsciously long before I realize why it was weird talking to that person.

            1. many bells down*

              Yes, that’s why I was saying upthread that I sometimes do it on purpose when speaking publicly. I’m supposed to present information on museum artifacts, and I find the talks go better when I make them sound more informal and conversational, and not perfectly rehearsed.

            2. Manders*

              I once had a roommate who spoke slowly and without filler words. For most of the year we lived together, I thought he was furious with me all the time and I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. There was nothing else in his body language or his behavior that made him seem anything less than calm and polite–it was *just* the fact that his speech sounded like someone in a cold fury carefully choosing every word.

              The human brain is a weird thing. It’s a machine that’s very good at picking up tiny details in spoken language and body language, but it does most of that processing at a level we’re not aware of.

              1. LCL*

                Thank you Manders! I now finally understand what I do when speaking that can seem really alienating to others. I have had people become really angry with me sometimes when I try to explain things. I had thought it was because of all of my parenthetical digressions and ‘that reminds of a story’ change in directions. But I work really hard and concentrate when I talk to make sure I don’t use filler words. Now I believe after reading your and others comments that’s what is making people annoyed about my speaking patterns.

              2. JB (not in Houston)*

                Yes! I used to do this sometimes as a teen to irritate my sister! Low, slow, deliberate speaking voice with no fillers. It was the perfect sister annoyance because there wasn’t anything she could complain to my parents about it. I don’t recommend doing this to people you don’t want to bother.

          2. Manders*

            It’s the kind of thing you might not consciously notice, but your brain still picks up on the fact that the speech feels unnatural or there’s something off about the speaker. You may find yourself thinking that the person you’re speaking to is cold or overly formal without being able to describe exactly why you’ve got that impression.

          3. Kowalski! Options!*

            Because the lack of responsiveness makes the answer or idea sounds canned. I worked as an ESL examiner for the Spanish Military Languages School for a couple of years in the mid-aughts, and one of the things you listen for in a response is the lack of filler language (in addition to the response sometimes being marginally related to the question you actually asked). It means that the examinee memorized and recited the answer to the question, rather than using the question as a starting point for communicating with the examiners in other ways – jokes, getting sidetracked, building explanations onto explanations. At the end of the day, if there are elements like discourse markers missing, all you’re testing people on is the ability to recite paragraphs, not actually talking to people.
            I mean, if someone has his or her thoughts together enough that they’re able to communicate without filler language, more power to ’em. But it’s not how most of us actually speak, since we don’t prepare and refine our responses in casual conversation as we’re actually conversing with others.

      2. mrs__peel*

        Excellent point!

        I was a linguistics major as an undergrad (with a focus on sociolinguistics), and I’ve had many… heated discussions along these lines with self-appointed grammar police over the years.

        1. Manders*

          My mom’s like this–she corrects your grammar while you’re speaking, but she uses an old set of rules that aren’t always part of common usage anymore. She’s a professor who spent most of her life studying a group of ancient languages that aren’t in use anymore; I’m a writer who majored in a period of history in which English grammar and vocabulary were an absolute mess. We’re never, ever going to reach an agreement about proper grammar.

          1. AMG*

            Oh my gosh! That isn’t very polite. Does she do that to other people, or just you? I would imagine that people would avoid speaking with her fairly quickly.

            1. Manders*

              I think she only does it to her kids, I’ve never seen her do it with colleagues or friends. She’s lived a very interesting life and did quite a bit of social climbing to get where she is today; she was the first in her working-class immigrant family to attend college, and she’s got degrees from two ivy leagues schools and had a very prestigious career. I think she taught us overly formal manners because those manners were part of how she proved she belonged in elite circles.

              I love her, but I’m also very glad I got the chance to move into my own home and build a career in an area where that kind of formality isn’t necessary.

              1. AMG*

                She sounds amazing! I can see where someone would be tempted to do that in her position.

            2. MB*

              @AMG…agreed. I know somebody who compulsively corrects other people’s grammar and it doesn’t occur to this person that some folks may find it a bit rude.

          2. Kowalski! Options!*

            I can’t think of many justifications for extending the “my teenager isn’t talking to me” thing straight into adulthood, but this would definitely have done it for me.

          3. Coalea*

            Your mom sounds like my dad! He’s a self-appointed Grammar Policeman, but the rule book he relies on is hopelessly out of date. He has been known to make a game show buzzer noise every time I or one of my siblings uses “like” at the dinner table. When I pushed back on this obnoxious behavior, his response was to tell me that “as a linguist [my undergrad degree is in linguistics], I should know better!” Any attempt to educate him on language change in general and “like” in particular falls on deaf ears.

            1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

              My father would silently (but pointedly) count up on his fingers whenever I used “like.” I got into several arguments with him about why it was more accurate to say “Then Jenny was like…” instead of “Then Jenny said…” since I wasn’t quoting her precisely. But what I wasn’t able to articulate at the time was that it was frustrating because it seemed like he was paying attention to my grammar and not the content of what I was saying.

              1. LizB*

                OMG, the counting-likes-on-your-fingers thing. I had totally forgotten my dad used to do that until this moment. He didn’t just do it to me, either, but to my friends when they came over for dinner (yeah, he’s an ass). Totally obnoxious.

                I did have one English teacher in high school for whom I kept a personal tally of how often she said “okay” as a filler word, because I was bored out of my mind with the book we were reading and her rate of “okay” usage was truly impressive. But I never even shared that tally with my friends, let alone given it as feedback to the teacher – that would have been so rude!

                1. HollyTree*

                  We had a similar English teacher. We only counted the times she said ‘Okay’ in a single lesson because she would call out anyone who said ‘like’ even once. Because it made us sound silly, apparently. But saying ‘okay’ 142 times in 30 minutes, isn’t, like, excessive at all? It wouldn’t have stood out if she’d used other filler words, like um, or uh, or even, like, like. Just once in a while.

                2. Hlyssande*

                  My favorite philosophy prof used ‘right’ the same way. And yes, there were days I tallied how many times he said it in my notebook margins. Awesome guy, A+ would take his classes again, forever.

            2. Indie*

              I would give him the material to read through if he’s so interested. If he doesn’t classify him as ‘officially uninformed and willfully ignorant.’ Does he even know what a linguist Does? They’ve never been archaic grammarians.

    4. MarsJenkar*

      The way I see it, if there is a time that someone should speak up on a linguistic error, it’s *only* when it causes *significant* actual or potential confusion in terms of meaning. “Um”, “uh”, and “like” used as filler don’t fit the bill. Neither do most split infinitives or sentence-ending prepositions.

  3. Mike*

    All I can think about is the episode of How I Met your Mother where Robin says “But Um” on the news and they turn it into a drinking game.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      That’s exactly where my mind went too.

      But seriously, this is awful. I thought it was bad at OldJob when they had the stupid ‘recognition’ meetings every couple of weeks. We all called it “the clapping meeting” because people would get certificates acknowledging that they met their goals.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I just spewed out my coffee imagining people celebrating getting “the clap.”

          1. Detective Amy Santiago*

            At the risk of going too off topic, go to youtube and search for “The Wiggles The Clap” and revel in the inappropriateness.

      1. Jesmlet*

        At least there’s good intentions there. I’m having flashbacks to an interview at HorribleInvestmentCompany where I learned it’s company culture to tear each other apart every day, all for the sake of personal growth and truth.

          1. Jesmlet*

            A portion of our weekly ops meeting was always a gigantic waste of time, and since we have different offices, the sane ones of us would always mute and mock the people who took that section seriously. I about cried from laughing when the person who loved that section suggested we get rid of it at our year end. If you can’t change the waste of time activity, try to find some levity in it all so you don’t pull your hair out.

          2. Rosamond*

            May I ask how this ended up getting changed? We started doing this a few years ago in response to staff expressing that they didn’t feel recognized/appreciated. It ends up being managers congratulating their own reports on doing a good job. I would love it if we could stop.

        1. CoveredInBees*

          There was a cult/ substance abuse treatment program that centered around that concept. Late 1970’s, I think. Self-improvement was to be had by sitting in the middle of a circle and being told about all the things that were wrong with you or that you had done wrong.

          They used one location to house all the cultmember’s children communally and it turns out that I spent time there as a kid for outdoor ed, not too long after the cult disbanded.

          1. Jesmlet*

            This place is compared to a cult all the time. Once I spent 6 hours on a first interview there, I had pretty much worked out why. Nothing wrong with being critical, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it.

            1. DaniTLR*

              I’m relatively certain I know the place you mean, because I worked at a place infamous as a cult with everything you described ingrained in the guiding principles.

        2. ReneeB*

          Wait, what? How? When was this done? Where, like a public afternoon meeting?

          This requires a story! And kudos on the fact your comment only says “interview” and not OldJob!

    2. EddieSherbert*

      Yes! “But um but um but um but um!”

      Just embrace it and go nuts ;)
      (…don’t really do that)

    3. Allison*

      Baddum baddum baddum baddum baddum!

      My grandboss says “ya’know” a lot. A lot. I once counted 50 “ya’know”s in a span of about 15 minutes, maybe less than that. I got bored in a meeting and tried to count. It makes me cringe, but it’s also none of my blankin’ business how other people talk.

      1. AMG*

        Wow-that’s quite a bit. That would merit your great-grandboss saying something, but the process the OP lines up still isn’t justified even in that scenario.

      2. Anonie*

        I do a little audio transcription for extra money. I hear “you know” more than “um” or “like.” I have a keyboard shortcut for it because 50 in 15 minutes isn’t that unusual. /anecdata

        1. BeautifulVoid*

          Court reporter over here, and my experience is the same. I also have a one-stroke brief for “you know” since people say it all the time. What I find fascinating is people whose first language is something other than English, but they’re fluent enough to testify without an interpreter – “you know” as filler works its way in there reeeeeeal fast.

      3. legalchef*

        My mom does this, and sometimes I’ll saw “no, I don’t know.” Just to mess with her.

        1. Lizzle*

          My dad and I both use “ya’know?” a lot and at one point my mom had taken to replying in irritation, “Yes, I do know.”

      4. Cath in Canada*

        I used to have a colleague who constantly said “like you know” as filler, at least once or twice per sentence. Once you’ve noticed that kind of outlier behaviour, it’s simply not possible to un-notice it!

      5. Your Weird Uncle*

        I had an ex who used to point out every instance of a similar phrase: ‘Yeah, no’. As in, we’d be having a discussion and to agree with him (or disagree) I would put ‘yeah’ and ‘no’ together: ‘Yeah, no, I see what you’re saying, but really the feral cat population is growing rapidly out of hand.’ Now I hear it EVERY time someone says it, and I’m genuinely curious as to what purpose it serves in our language. Are we agreeing? Disagreeing? Is it verbal filler?

        I don’t think it’s an especially regional thing…? I currently live in Wisconsin, but my ex was Irish and had a boss in London who would say it (which is when he started noticing), and I have a colleague from Kansas who says it frequently too. Anyone else notice this one?

        1. Jessica*

          Yeah, no. j/k

          I think I hear, “Well, but” as opposed to “Yeah, no”. For example, “Feral cats aren’t that big of a deal.” “Well, but they do have a huge impact on bird populations so it really is pretty bad.”

        2. Lissa*

          To me, “Yeah, no” is strong disagreement but the speaker is trying to soften/be polite about it. I have a “language pet peeve” about people disagreeing by saying “except that”, which sounds snarky/corrective to my ears (though I realize this is a me thing) and “yeah, no” feels like a softer way of doing that.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Agreed—when I hear “yeah, no” I hear it as “I hear what you’re saying but disagree with you 1000%,” but I hear it “politely,” fwiw. It doesn’t hurt my feelings or offend me. Now I’m trying to think of my disagreement peeves.

        3. Zombii*

          >>I’m genuinely curious as to what purpose it serves in our language. Are we agreeing? Disagreeing? Is it verbal filler?

          It used to be a really dismissive and rude form of disagreement. The “yeah” is sarcastic and then the “no” is to rapidly clarify that the “yeah” was sarcastic, because the person you’re talking to is obviously too stupid to understand sarcasm. Shortened from “Yeah… but no.”

          (This is how we used it back in the late 90’s, but it’s probably evolved since then.)

        4. bridget*

          The podcast Lexicon Valley had a great episode about “yeah, no,” and if I recall correctly, they argued that it has several different usages depending on tone and context! Episode 27, back in 2013.

        5. Cherith Ponsonby*

          It’s definitely A Thing in Australia (and I think New Zealand) – in fact I think it’s one of the rare cases where Australian slang goes global. You get it a lot in interviews with sportspeople after the game –

          boundary rider: You kicked five goals today – you must be pretty proud?
          full forward: Yeah, nah, full credit to the team…

          In this case the “yeah” is “yes, I acknowledge what you’ve just said” and the “nah” is “I would like to politely deflect your praise” (we’re a pretty self-deprecating culture).

          Of course, this being the English language, it’s a lot more complex than that, but in general it’s a way to soften a bare “yes” or “no”, and the individual “yeah” and “nah” tend to each make sense on their own in context. The link in my name is to an Australian newspaper article about the phenomenon – I know the legendary David Astle has written about it but I can’t find it online :(

          1. SS*

            Love your example! The self deprecating yeah no is huge here. The other Australian “yeah no” where the words make sense in their own context is the one that goes like this:

            Person 1: How’s Fergus?
            Person 2: Yeah nah he’s fine now yeah.
            (Translation: Oh yes that’s right he had that accident we discussed last week. No you needn’t worry. Yes it’s good news.)

            But there is also the not-specifically-Australian “yeah no” which is the sarcastic one:

            Person 1: Don’t you just love Justin Beiber?
            Person 2: Yeah, no. (Using a really firm tone on the “no”.)

            And I think they are all fine! Although the Australian yeah no drives my English-born parents nuts. Yeah nah they’re massive sticklers ay.

            1. nonegiven*

              At the grocery store checkout, “Did you find everything?”

              “Yeah, not really, but it’s [town] so I’m really not surprised.”

            2. Cherith Ponsonby*

              Yeah, no, my parents are English too and they’re all “do you mean yeah or no?” My mum always used to correct our grammar but. I still have a reflexive twitch whenever I hear anyone say “different to” (“different from,” says my mum’s voice in my head)

              There’s also the less-common “nah, yeah”:
              Person 1: Do you barrack for Essendon?
              Person 2: Nah, yeah I hate them.

              …where “nah” is “the answer to your question is no”, and “yeah” is “I am about to say something else”. (And “Essendon” is a football team that I no longer remember why I hate. Carn the Swans!)

      6. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        A good friend does this with “and stuff.” As in she substitutes “and stuff” for “y’know” and “like.” So it becomes, “And this hospital merger proposal just eviscerates coverage for the poor and stuff.”

  4. Just passing by*

    This is a Toastmasters thing as far as I’m aware. Is it possible boss is part of this and is so excited about the difference it’s making there that she wants to bring it to the office?

    I’m trying to be charitable in ascribing it to overzealous enthusiasm rather than a myopic driving of a personal agenda.

    1. El*

      Yep, definitely a Toastmasters thing! It was very helpful for me when I did Toastmasters to know how much I stumbled when I’m speaking, but to make it anything but voluntary in the workplace is ridiculous.

      1. Ramona Flowers*

        But isn’t it shaming and infantilising?

        I’m a partly trained therapist and my training taught me to cut down massively on filler words without anyone ever counting them like a dog trainer.

        What I find useful is to think about what I want to say, give myself time, and pause if I need to.

        1. AnitaJ*

          I actually really appreciated it, but my Toastmasters group was full of warm, encouraging folks who really wanted everyone to improve. I would give my speech, at the end they would give feedback and very simply just tell you how many times you used specific filler words. I didn’t feel shamed at all. But perhaps I was just lucky in the group I attended.

        2. Eric*

          Not in a good Toastmasters club, for a couple of reasons. One, toastmasters is voluntary, so people generally know what they are signing up for, and are looking to improve in this sort of thing. Secondly, and most importantly, is the attitude of the club. The club I attended was very positive, and supportive, and never worked hard to never make someone feel bad for how they did. The “Ah counter” is only one small piece of the feedback you are getting. Plus, when it is coming from a peer and not your boss, I think the feeling is very different.

        3. AvonLady Barksdale*

          I think the key is that Toastmasters is something one elects to do, with specific methods. I’ve never done it myself, but I hear such great feedback that I can’t imagine there’s a lot of shaming going on! I would hate to do this in a work environment, especially with my boss– I would expect critique from a Toastmasters group or coach or what have you, because that’s what I signed up for.

          1. Ramona Flowers*

            I’m really glad this was flagged here as I’d been thinking of trying TM. I hear what people are saying but have zero desire to be in the same room as anyone whose role is to be an Ah Counter.

            I realise this is getting a bit off topic, but I think the really key thing here is that the way someone speaks is very personal and being critiqued for it in overly personal ways – in the LW’s case, I mean – is potentially demoralising and anxiety inducing.

            1. Pommette*


              Toastmasters sounds like a cool organization. I know a few members: they are lovely people who report enjoying their meetings and having become better public speakers as a result of the work done there. That’s wonderful!

              But I would not want to speak in the manner promoted by Toastmasters. Filler words serve a linguistic function. I’m actually happy with my use of filler words. (And with the use of actually in the preceding sentence). I’m happy with other people’s use of filler words, and I don’t want to be trained to notice or dislike Ums and Ahs. Toastmaster speeches have a very specific rhetoric and linguistic style. It seems arbitrary and excessive for an employer to impose it on his employees.

            2. Cherith Ponsonby*

              I don’t know if it helps, but when I was in Toastmasters lo these many years past, we did have people who asked not to have their ums and ahs counted, and we never counted guests unless they specifically asked for it (occasionally we’d have long-time guests, or people who were members of other clubs).

              In my current job we occasionally give informal presentations and sometimes have contests, but we have so many people from a non-English speaking background that judging criteria are always about content rather than delivery, so someone who talks persuasively but ungrammatically about a highly relevant subject scores more highly than a well-polished speech about something less relevant. (Which sucked for me on a purely selfish level because I was #2, but I digress.)

          2. CM*

            I think this is exactly what the OP should say to the boss — that she understands this is a technique used in programs like Toastmasters, but it’s effective there because it’s in the context of a supportive group of people who are choosing to work on their public speaking together. Whereas here, it feels forced and a little humiliating, like they are being publicly shamed.

          3. Susan*

            Toastmasters is a great club for speaking and networking, and it’s voluntary. It made me very aware of “filler words” … so much so that when I hear someone who can’t complete a sentence without 2 or 3 likes, ums and ahs thrown in, I tune what they’re saying. So for everyone who thinks it makes them sound cool or natural, consider that there are people out there who won’t hear your message because these crutch words can be a huge distraction. Sort of like the stain on your shirt commercial.

            And yes, the office is no place for public shaming of people’s skills.

            1. SS*

              For a lot of people, though, filler words maintain the flow of speech so that listeners don’t tune out when the speaker needs to pause while searching for a word. My husband has done a lot of public speaking etc and was taught to avoid filler words. During casual conversations he uses filler words a bit but when he’s paying more attention to what he’s saying (e.g. having a serious conversation, explaining something complicated) he avoids them and the pauses are so much more distracting than umming and ahhing would be!

              Meanwhile I’m a huge user of filler words (I’m 27 and my parents are still on my case about it!) and I get lots of great feedback at work on the way I speak and present, even (maybe especially) for things that are completely impromptu.

          4. Lora*

            Did Toastmasters, and yes, it is full of people giving *constructive* criticism, not shaming at all. It’s more like, “this was great what you did here, and when you said this it conveyed the whatchamacallit clearly, but next time focus on your use of Like because all I could think of was Moon Unit and I wanted to throw in a Totally Tubular! at the end”. It’s really, really helpful and gives you space to develop sort of tricks for public speaking – I like to hold something (e.g. a coffee cup) in my hands, otherwise I fidget too much and it’s distracting.

            OP, are they just throwing you into speaking without teaching you how to do it properly? I mean, there’s classes and things that specifically teach you how to present information in a way that is accessible to non-experts, how to engage the audience, how to structure the talk so the important parts are remembered. It doesn’t do any good to be thrown in the deep end and then they complain that you don’t know how to properly backstroke; this stuff is not intuitive and when it’s done well it requires a lot of learned self-control and thought.

          5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            This makes a dramatic difference in how the exercise is perceived. If it seems supportive and thoughtful, OP probably wouldn’t feel like this is a public shaming. The combination of forcing people to do these presentations and then failing to train people on how to give constructive feedback creates a recipe for disaster. Also, OP’s boss seems totally unqualified to play the “teacher” or “discussion guide” role in this!

        4. sfigato*

          For me, I wasn’t aware of how often I would say ah or um. If the club is good and supportive and warm, it is more of a reminder to be mindful of your filler words.

          Toastmasters was really good for me, professionally. It was so helpful to practice speaking in public so you can be more confident when you do it in a work setting.

          1. Kimberlee, Esq*

            Yes! I came here to say, I had this exact exercise in my speech and debate team, and it was incredibly helpful. Most people just don’t hear how often we use verbal pauses. It hasn’t gone over well at this particular workplace, that’s clear, but I would not consider it untoward to have it as a regular exercise in any job that required a fair amount of public-facing work.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I used to work in roles that were very public facing (speaking to the media) and they still didn’t do this! What they did was very helpful: They videotaped each of us individually and then played it back for us (again, individually) and coached us one-on-one about the areas where we needed to improve. If they’d done what this manager is doing, it would have been a lot less effective.

              I really don’t think you see this in jobs that train you for public speaking, unless the place is very dysfunctional.

        5. Miles*

          I say them more than the average person (as my “um” scores at my meetings make clear) and I’ve never found it shaming. After all, the whole point is improvement and it’s hard to improve at anything if I’m too sensitive to hear any critique! Also, learning how to give good, constructive, and supportive evaluations is also a huge part of Toastmasters. There is even a role in every meeting for someone who gives the evaluators feedback on their evaluations and Toastmasters does competitions for evaluators the same as it holds competitions for people making the speeches.

        6. SignalLost*

          Not really. I’ve been to a number of clubs and never seen the Ah Counter report as anything other than supportive. The end goal is the same as yours – think through what you want to say, and pause if necessary rather than saying “um” while you try to remember something. Never be afraid of a short pause.

    2. Me2*

      Came to say exactly this, it’s a Toastmasters thing. They taught an onsite class when my son was in 5th grade, and each kid had to give a presentation at the end. Counting “um” was definitely a part of it, but it actually did help them be more aware, which was definitely helpful if you were a parent who already had to suffer the agonizing recitation of a movie plot. Much better without so many “ums” in it. I’m not saying this is appropriate for a work situation with adults.

      1. Izzy*

        Another Toastmasters member here. In our meetings, the Ah counter only counts up to about 3 fillers. Any more and they just say something like “You used a few, something to work on.” Before I knew this, I was the Ah counter one week (seemed like an easy role) and actually counted over fifty for one speaker and said so. Major faux pas. At least three people spoke to me about it and I apologized to the speaker. If a newer speaker uses many fillers, the counter might say something encouraging such as “not as many as last time, you’re improving.” The Ah counter counts their own, too – sometimes they use more fillers than anyone. In the club I go to, it’s a good natured thing. We sometimes catch our own and say “Oops!” or “Ah-counter, did you get that one?” In Toastmasters, we are trying to learn a more formal style of speech – giving a speech, as opposed to conversation. I would imagine that it would take even more control to deliberately add fillers as one commenter mentioned. I probably use more um’s than anyone, and what I’m trying to communicate is “Hey, I’m really nervous and unsure of myself, so y’all be nice and don’t pile on.” The attitude I joined Toastmasters to overcome.

        As far as using disfluencies to hold the floor, that was my father. He would use “ah-ah-ah” to monopolize the air time for literally hours at a time. Heaven forbid, at the dinner table, you wanted to interrupt to say “Please pass the salt.” This habit, to excess, is very annoying to the listener (who might want to participate in the conversation themselves).

        I agree though that shaming people at a mandatory meeting is wrong and would result in people either not talking or using more fillers out of nervousness.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          This is a good way of handling that. When I was in TM we were told how many ah’s we had. When it came my turn to count, well, I would lessen the number by a bit. All the speaker needs to know is to work on it, an exact number is not that helpful.

          OP, this is a great point to tell your boss. In addition, TM goes out of its way to say something positive about each speech. If your boss is not finding encouraging things to say that is a huge problem. People are not going to want to line up to “get shot” each month. They will not be learning much from this exercise.

      1. mrs__peel*

        Love that show. No hesitation, deviation or repetition!!

        Seriously, though, that must take some incredible practice (especially the “not repeating words” part). I heard that the idea for it originated in British public schools, as a way to train kids for public speaking.

        1. Marillenbaum*

          It’s such a fun program! I listen to it while I’m cleaning the apartment, and love getting to pounce on instances of hesitation or repetition (deviation is always a tough sell). I’d love to try playing it as a party game.

    3. ann perkins*

      Came to say this as well. I participate in Toastmasters currently and one of the roles at the weekly meeting is the Ah-Counter, and this is what they do. The point of course is to cut down on filler words and be more cognizant of how we speak. So perhaps the manager is an over zealous TM enthusiast (like our current President who has been driving me crazy but that is off topic). That being said – TM is voluntary and should not be forced on people against their will. I will say, though, in TM it is definitely part of the meeting and no public shaming, but it sounds like this manager is not going about this the right way.

    4. Liz@Chief Mom Officer*

      Toastmasters also immediately came to mind to me – the “Ah Counter” role. It really is helpful in getting you to reduce the amount of filler words in your speeches (ah, um, like, you know, etc.) and replace them with pauses. Your speech sounds more smooth and professional that way. BUT Toastmasters is a group for people that specifically want to improve their public speaking. This just sounds awful, particularly for those who are afraid of speaking in public already.

      I would recommend trying to get multiple folks to push back. If this is a misguided attempt to improve your teams public speaking skills, assuming that improving public speaking is important to your role (which it doesn’t sound like), you can recommend alternate options like taking a class, reading a book, joining the real Toastmasters, etc.

    5. Ann Furthermore*

      I think the manager should try to start up a Toastmasters group at the office, and then anyone who wants to participate can. My last company had one that met over lunch once every few weeks and it was pretty popular. But to take one specific thing from Toastmasters and impose it on people who may not be interested is not the way to go about motivating people to improve their public speaking skills.

      1. CatCat*

        This seems like a great idea to me, and starting an office Toastmasters club may be a good way to redirect the boss. Of course, if no one shows up, that could backfire.

      1. irritable vowel*

        Now I want to start a group called “Totally Toastmasters!” (head tilt) that aims to cure people like me of their Valley Girl-esque speech patterns.

        1. Greg*

          Except that it should be “Totally Toastmasters?” to indicate that you uptalk at the end of the sentence.

    6. Pommette*

      I agree that the boss’ intentions are probably good.

      It sounds like a situation where the boss joined Toastmasters, had a wonderful experience, and decided to import some of the group’s techniques into the workplace without realizing that the things that made his experience wonderful cannot be forcibly recreated in the workplace.

      A community of people who come together to help one another develop a style of speech they agree is desirable? Lovely! A group being forced to police one another’s speech? Not so much.

    7. JM60*

      When I was in junior toastmasters as a teen, we had a designated person to count all the ‘um’s from everyone, as well as each person being assigned someone who would give them a public evaluation. However, toastmasters is a voluntary, opt-in program, and employees generally shouldn’t have something like this forced upon them. There are a few types of positions for which public speaking for which requiring this might be appropriate, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case here.

    8. Corby*

      Yeah I have a feeling this would have gone over better if the instructor had explained it came from Toastmasters. The thing is that Toastmasters is a thing people go into with the idea of making themselves better public speakers. It sounds like the people at this office weren’t given that context and so it just seems really weird and inappropriate. Communication fail.

      But people do like to work Toastmasters in to things. I had an Engineering Communications course taught by a technical writer and it was about half basically just Toastmasters. And at my first job we had a Toastmasters group for our office. It’s not uncommon.

    9. Aurion*

      As others have said, this is definitely a Toastmasters thing (though it is a thing with practiced speeches in general).

      That being said, being formal, eloquent, and polished is great if you have a 5-minute continuous speech going on (or even a 30 second-1 minute table topic) if the point is that you’re delivering content. You’re instructing, the delivery is all in one-shot and it behooves you to make it as polished as possible. But in casual conversation filler words serve a specific purpose and having that polished a delivery when you’re talking about the weekend weather is weird–and alienating, if such a thing is mandated.

      It’s like wearing a tuxedo when the office is dressed in polo shirts and jeans. Is the tuxedo more polished? Absolutely. Is it appropriate? Not necessarily.

    10. SignalLost*

      Another Toastmaster here. I’ve found the crutch words part helpful and have specifically asked for help identifying how many times I start a sentence with “so” and “and”, but it’s what I want to do, not my boss telling me to do it. It can make you annoyingly aware when people overuse filler words, but then you just recommend TM to them and go on with your life, not force them to do the program!

    11. SpockPrime*

      Yes, upon reading the details of this story (in particular mentioning two employees presenting for five minutes each) this is, in my opinion, an exact takeaway from Toastmasters. This does not mean the manager in question is participating in a Toastmasters Club and in fact I would argue that the manager most likely read about this practice online on some sort of professional development website but lacks the context necessary to make this activity productive. The counting of filler words, in the context of Toastmasters, is done with the consent of participants with the understanding that this is part of a larger positive change and their own self-development. Toastmasters is always very clear that these types of activities and evaluations should be viewed through a positive lens (someone is trying to assist you in your growth), but the manager seems to be missing two things “consent” and “positivity”.

      I would ask your manager if they have considered starting a Toastmaster’s club at work (if your company allows that sort of activity on-site). This solves the issue because the manager would have the opportunity to have that outlet with other like-minded coworkers. The bank I work for has many chapters at our offices throughout the country and our past CEO was a huge proponent of the organization. I am currently participating in my office’s club chapter and have found it to be a great experience!

  5. Lucy Honeychurch*

    UGH that sounds like garbage. (Oops I said “like!”)
    This is probably not a mature solution, but I would write out and memorize my speech ahead of time to get through it with no fillers. (But that’s probably not a good use of your time, and pushing back collectively is a more effective option. But boy would I love to stump the boss by blazing through something with nary a single “um.”)

    1. Lablizard*

      I would do the speech in my native language and use all the fillers I want, since no one in my office would understand me.

    2. SarahKay*

      Or the opposite option – get two brave speakers who say almost nothing but ‘like’, ‘um’, ‘uh’.

      “So, um, today, er, I’m like, er, going to um, talk, like, about, well, you know, the thing, um….”

      Watch the boss get steadily more irritated, as everyone else falls about laughing.

  6. esra*

    This sounds like an actual bad dream. I don’t even mind public speaking, and this would get my back up. I’ve been the Person Who Speaks Up before, and you definitely get a bit of a reputation, so I’d definitely follow Alison’s advice to find others who aren’t keen on this (I can’t imagine that will be tough).

    1. TCO*

      Agreed–being The Person Who Speaks Up can be a tough position to hold (speaking from experience). Build a coalition and approach it together. Even if you’re the one speaking, make it clear that others share your opinion. Have them with you in the room if possible.

  7. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    I’d just go full Count Fenring for 5 minutes. “Uhhh….our, ahmm, department, uhhhhh, attaches, uh, the handles, ermmmm, to the teakettles, hmmmm, and, uh, we’re, hmmmm, also, uh, responsible, ermmmm, for handle design, hmmmmmmmm” Staring the boss in the eye all the while.

    1. Kowalski! Options!*

      Or full-on Marcel Marceau! No speaking at all, just an office-wide game of charades.

      1. Kowalski! Options!*

        Scientist, I just read your comment above. I sense a movement brewing. :)

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I am not responsible for anybody getting fired, but if you do and it turns into a great story about getting fired, I demand credit.

      2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Finger puppets. Making “wah wah waaaah!” noises.

        1. SaraV*

          And then complain how wide they drew your hips! (My favorite scene from that episode)

    2. Charlie*

      Any week that starts with a perfectly on-point Dune reference is gonna be a good week. Thanks, good sir.

    3. Ashdoo*

      (longtime lurker occasional commenter here)

      I would add to that a handout of Jeff Goldblum with “Like uh finds a way” underneath.

      1. Jessica*

        Suddenly Jeff Goldblum becomes the patron saint of casual speech patterns at companies nationwide. “Make Like Not War”

    4. Jersey's mom*

      Being from NY, I like to go all DiNiro with presentations (without the cussing), but with the arm waving, the *looks*, the facial expressions. It can freak out my Midwestern co-workers – except the ones who have known me for a long time. They usually ask me to say certain words (like deer, coffee, dog, river….)

  8. TCO*

    Our executive director’s pet peeve is “um” and when I started this job we received such strong warnings about it that several of us were highly self-conscious for years about speaking in front of her. It was really unhealthy. I’ve also heard that she did something similar to OP’s bosses during management team meetings until people pushed back.

    I’ve heard many great professional speakers use “um” and similar words, and I’ve found that it doesn’t really matter. The use of the occasional filler word isn’t really what distinguishes an engaging, knowledgeable, commanding speaker from a bad one.

    1. Manders*

      I wonder sometimes how people can be such strict prescriptivists about things that they’re hearing from every single person they speak to. It must be exhausting to go through your life feeling like you have to correct something you hear every day.

      I wish I had a solution for the OP, but really, getting used to a totally normal part of the way the human brain forms speech is the boss’s responsibility.

      1. fposte*

        It reminds me of the Slate language podcast where they railed against vocal fry–while unconsciously using vocal fry.

        To me, there’s no question that an overuse of “um” and “uh” can make a presentation difficult to listen to. However, that’s not the same thing as saying it’s unacceptable to use “um” and “uh”–you just need to get it in the sweet spot.

        1. TL -*

          Yes! I do video editing for some science outreach videos and we get both the perfectly memorized “I put this in simple layman’s terms” (no, you wrote that for an undergraduate in your major) and the “um, um, um….” people who never. put. space. between. their. words.
          Both are really hard to follow – neither extreme is good.

          1. fposte*

            Yeah, I did interview transcriptions for a book years ago, and it was fascinating to see what speakers who were perfectly fluent to the ear looked like when their words were placed verbatim on the page. (They didn’t stay verbatim, because convention allows for smoothing out of oralisms, but that’s how I’d initially transcribe them.)

            1. SusanIvanova*

              I was listening to NPR once where they were talking behind-the-scenes stuff – they edit out fillers and dead air before they broadcast the interview because it makes for a better radio experience for the listeners – when you can’t see the person talking, the gaps and fillers are more noticeable because you don’t get the body language telling you they’re hunting for what to say. Plus, of course, tightening up the air time.

              1. TL -*

                Yes, I’m listening to a podcast right now where they don’t edit out dead air time and while I love the subject of the podcast, the lack of editing is driving me crazy. (Whereas at a panel, those types of spaces and “does anyone have anything to add?” questions feel more natural and inclusive.)
                Filler amount is very context dependent – I think I also want to hear less in a “conversation” type podcast than a single person type podcast and more when I’m in the audience for a single public speaker.

        2. many bells down*

          Hah I said something to my husband about myself having some mild vocal fry, but that everyone compliments me on my speaking voice. He insisted I didn’t have vocal fry. I’m like “honey, I studied linguistics, trust me, I have fry.”

          He was thinking of that exaggerated fry that people make fun of; he didn’t realize there were degrees of vocal fry.

          1. TL -*

            :) I pick up other people’s vocal tics fairly easily so sometimes I have a lot of vocal fry but most of the time I have very little or none. My older brother cannot stand vocal fry and if I’ve just been speaking to a bunch of peers and have some he can’t hold a conversation with me at all.
            Though if he asks me to stop, I can easily switch to my more moderated, thoughtful speaking pattern. I just have to think about it.

            1. fposte*

              I have more vocal fry as I get older, which I think is funny since it’s associated with youth. I think I just need more breath support now that everything has started loosening up.

              1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                Isn’t fry primarily about your pitch (i.e., as your vocal register drops in pitch, it moves closer to frying because the vocal cords fold onto one another)?

                1. fposte*

                  I think it’s both. Voices do tend to get lower as you get older, but breath support staves off fry as well. I can easily fry or non-fry at the same pitch, and I think that’s pretty common; it’s only when I get in the more soprano end of the range that I can’t get fry at all. On the low end, there’s really no legit vocal pitch that I can’t defry with decent breath support.

                  (Now you’ve made me more interested in the physiology.)

                2. Not So NewReader*

                  @ fposte. I almost think this has something to do with energy level. Our voices are slightly different at different energy levels. It makes sense that if we are tired, our voice level would change and our speech might get a little sloppy/lazy as we use the easy to grab words.

                  When I am super tired, my voice is lower and *I think* I sound like I am back in grammar school as far as my word choice.
                  I am also thinking of thyroid and singing. One day I was humming along at work. My boss said, “Aw com’on you can hit that note!” Nope. Not today. Thyroid was running sluggish. (We sing at work, it makes sense with the work we do.)

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yes! Or like the “This American Life” episode where audience members wrote in about a (female) editor’s vocal fry while completely ignoring that Ira Glass has been frying his vocals all up and and down every show.

          Unrelatedly, TCO, I read your anecdote and wanted to shake your ED.

        4. ancolie*

          That episode of Lexicon Valley pissed me off so much that I haven’t listened to one since. Do you think that was just a temporary showing-their-a***s and I can enjoy the rest of them?

  9. MuseumChick*

    This seems to be a “band together and push back collectively” kind of situation.

  10. Marzipan*

    I would be so, so tempted to pepper my five-minute speech with similes, and with words beginning with um- (umbrage, umpteen, umbrella, umbilical) or ah- sounds (ask, archive, art, and so on). Or, for extra fun, maybe I could do it without making those sounds (talking about -brage, -pteen and so on).

    Basically, I’m a terrible person.

    But it would be the last time anyone was asked to do a five-minute speech without um, ah or like, so there’s that.

    1. Elle*

      My first thought was to do a speech on linguistics all about using the word “like” and verbal pauses like “um” and “ah”, but I like your umbrage, umpteen, umbrella idea much better!

    2. OhNo*

      I love it! I’m definitely the kind of person who would pepper my speech with phrases like, “And here we can see the, uuuuuuuhhhhhh-mbrage present in Picasso’s work…”

      That, or my speech would be peppered with throat-clearing coughs every other word. It doesn’t count as verbal filler if it’s not verbal, after all!

    3. MarsJenkar*

      I myself tend to be fairly formal when I speak. But if I were in the situation the OP listed, I would find it to be horrible. And if someone like you were to poke fun of it in the way you suggested, I would find it hilarious.

  11. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    Public criticism? Self-criticism? Did the boss get her management ideas from North Korea or what?

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      That sounds like a great parody business book. “Glorious Manager: Disrupting the Management Paradigm with the Juche Idea”

      1. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

        I nearly choked trying not to laugh loudly in my tightly packed open office!

        1. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

          It’s pronounced “Jush” I thought? I have seen too many North Korea documentaries.

      2. Jane Gloriana Villanueva*

        I generally enjoy your comments, THNBOIS, but you have *outdone* yourself with this one. I’ll be giggling all day!

      3. OhNo*

        Pfffhahaha! Tell you what, if you write that one, I’ll be first in line for the pre-order.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I have toyed with the thought of starting a blog that’s “Ask a Sith Lord” or “Ask a Glorious Leader” that would answer Alison’s questions each day, but from the POV of Darth Vader or Kim Jong Un, respectively.

          1. Aurion*

            Better Darth Vader than Kylo Ren! The latter would tell you to flip a table or destroy everything any time he gets an answer he doesn’t like.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            OMG, please do. I would read that blog. My vote is for Darth Vader.

    2. RVA Cat*

      I’d be tempted to have my “speech” be a reading of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”…

  12. Trout 'Waver*

    I would give a talk on the use of the words ‘um’ and ‘uh’ and let everyone go nuts as to which counted as pauses and which were valid uses of the words.

    As in, “Sometimes when a person uses the words ‘um’ or ‘uh’, it shows that they didn’t rehearse their speech, whereas other uses of the words ‘um’ and ‘uh’ are to buy time for the person to process and respond to a question. In this case, ‘um’ and ‘uh’ show that the person is actively listening and not just delivering canned speeches.” Keep it up for a full five minutes and see how you score.

    But in reality, people who scorekeep word counts like this are doing it instead of listening and should be called out for it. If the ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ keep you from being clearly understood, that should be communicated. But a couple here and there are perfectly fine. Both of our last two presidents had a halting way of speaking in public that included a lot of ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’. And it didn’t impact their communication, imho.

  13. NW Mossy*

    I actually just took a presentation skills course where the instructor argued that this is the exact worst way to limit these kinds of break in speech. As the OP describes, it makes you self-conscious and causes you to lose focus on connecting with your audience.

    Instead, he taught something that (at least for me and my fellow participants) was extremely effective – slowing your pace of speech. Filler words creep in when our mouths get out ahead of our brains, so simply taking more time over your words limits the disconnect and helps the train of thought keep moving smoothly. If I hadn’t watched myself and 15 other people be cured of ums and ahs almost immediately after getting “slow down” instruction, I wouldn’t have believed that something so basic could make that much difference.

    1. Marzipan*

      In French lessons at school we were specifically taught to make ‘French noises’ so we’d fall back on them during the oral exam if we needed to pause at all, rather than an English ‘um’!

      1. Cassandra*

        Likewise in Spanish. Fillers do vary by dialect, but I learned “esteeeeeeeeeee” very early on and it’s still my go-to.

        1. Kowalski! Options!*

          Ha! When I was living in Madrid, Spain, I had a room-mate from Vigo who’d always say, “Sabes lo que te quiero decir?” (“Do you know what I want to tell you?”) after every. single. utterance. It took a couple of weeks to figure out that it was a kind of verbal tic with her, not an actual solicitation for understanding.)

          1. Megan M.*

            I do transcription and there are a lot of people who use variants of “Do you know what I’m saying?” and “Do you know what I mean?” as their filler phrase.

            1. OnFire*

              The current one (that bugs me) is ending every sentence with “right?”

              I don’t know; you’re the one telling me. Is it right, or isn’t it? >:-|

            2. London Calling*

              Oh thanks, you’ve reminded me of the colleague whose verbal tic was ‘know what I mean?’ at the end of every other sentence. It wound one person up to the extent of exploding at her that ‘No, I don’t know what you bl**dy well mean!’

      2. Emi.*

        Yes! This was something I taught myself for Chinese, because Chinese tastes and feels so different from English that I really threw myself off by saying “um.” I tried to train myself to use Chinese filler sounds all the time, except the problem with this is that a common Chinese filler word is “neige,” which means “which” but sounds like … a different two-syllable word that starts with N. So I stuck with “mmm.”

      3. Jessica*

        I remember being told that, too. We were supposed to make something like an “euuuuuh” sound (like the vowel portion of the French word “boeuf”) instead of saying “um”.

        1. Putting Out Fires, Esq*

          I said a lot of “comment dit-on…..?” Which was both a filler and an actual question, 50/50. You let it drag, you’re just thinking what to say.

    2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      This is a good point, in all seriousness. We watched Mr. Rodgers in my public speaking class. He actually talked incredibly slowly, but the idea is you shoot for the moon and hit orbit – most public speakers deliver their words at least 50% too fast, and shooting for that slower delivery can really pay dividends.

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        I love presenting and consider presentation one of my strongest skills. I speak well and clearly, I like to engage audiences. I am also a Very Fast speaker, so I try really hard to slow my speech so I don’t use filler words. It works in presentations, but in other contexts, people interrupt me all the time! My boyfriend is the worst at this. I pause, like a comma, and he jumps right the heck in. “Honey, I wasn’t finished with that thought,” is something I had to learn to say. Can’t win.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          I find it fascinating how comfortable men are interrupting women. Like, any gap and some guys will just leap into it. It’s not always intentional, but there’s a lot of men who desperately need to rein it in. I’ve had to continually remind myself that if it’s worth saying now, it’s worth saying 30 seconds from now, and I can let people conclude their thought naturally.

          1. Allison*

            Oh yeah, at oldjob I had a colleague I would touch base with on the phone once a week, and I felt like I had to speak in this continuous stream of words so that he wouldn’t butt in. But he also went on and on and on and it was really hard letting him finish his totally irrelevant rambling so I could ask a question pertinent to the task at hand, or let him know of my plan to do a thing before he took it on himself to tell me I should do the thing.

          2. Karanda Baywood*

            OMG, work colleague does this constantly.

            Not sure if it’s aimed at women per se, because all the rest of us are, or if he’s just super douchey.

          3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            I’m not going to post the link because it is off-topic and I don’t want to start a subthread, but google ”
            “Ruth Bader Ginsburg used this simple trick to cut down on manterrupting” for an interesting story on speech patterns and interruptions (the clickbaity headline is misleading; there’s no “trick” — it’s about how men and women speak and interact with speakers differently).

          4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I’ve started becoming really comfortable with “if I could just finish my sentence” and “Excuse me; I’m not finished.” The first is delivered with kind chagrin, the second with stone cold Minerva McGonagall face. It’s been surprisingly effective.

    3. Antilles*

      Your instructor is absolutely correct. Most listeners will barely notice an occasional “um” or “uh”, but they’ll absolutely notice if you’re self-conscious, awkward, or robotically focusing on your slides/written text/whatever.

    4. TL -*

      If it’s a talk I’ve given a couple of times, I can go super fast without overusing filler words (my brain goes super fast too). If I’m speaking more extemporaneously, then I have to slow down to avoid them, though even then, I’ll tend more towards smooth runs interrupted by bigger stumbles (usually when grabbing for a detail.)

  14. momofkings*

    This sounds like a Toastmasters meeting. Giving speeches and receiving critiques including how many filler words is part of the club. However, you SIGN UP for it because you want to improve your speaking skills. You are not forced into by your manager!

    1. Rat Racer*

      Also, I wonder: is public speaking a part of the OP’s job? Or is this just to scratch an itchy pet peeve of the boss’s?

  15. Alberta Georgina*

    I have a speech impediment which causes me to stutter. My stuttering causes me to say ‘um’ several times in a row before I complete the words I am trying to say. Sometimes more than once per sentence. Your boss would absolutely love me. If I had a boss try to do this to me I would purposely say ‘um’ several times more than my impediment causes me to. Because I’m mean like that.

    My sympathies OP. I hope the situation gets resolved soon.

    1. Anon today...and tomorrow*

      I read the letter and thought of anyone with social anxiety (or anxiety of any kind, really) and how this would be so upsetting. I hadn’t thought about stutterers. I have a childhood friend who still has a near debilitating stutter that hasn’t lessened despite years of intensive speech therapy. This type of activity would have him freezing up completely. Frankly, I think the manager is being cruel here.

    2. Tau*

      Another person who stutters chiming in, and let me tell you I would walk right out of that meeting and into HR’s office to fling around heavy words like “disability-based harrassment”. Because not only can filler words be part of how my speech disorder presents, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort shoring up my self-confidence when it comes to how I talk. Anyone undermining that by forcing me to be self-conscious about the minute details of my speech is Not On.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Yeah, this is really a stupid move by the manager, because eventually, someone with a speech issue is going to end up working for them. Lisps and stutters are incredibly common, and people use fillers to manage them, and if someone in the department doesn’t have one, someone will soon.

    3. Alberta Georgina*

      I’m sorry your friend struggles Anon today.

      I would do the same thing Tau. My filler word is ‘um’ and it’s what I say when I stutter. Like I said above, I would purposely say ‘um’ as much as I could, aside from my stutter even. Then I would dare the boss to say something. I honestly don’t care what anyone thinks of my speech impediment but if the boss said anything I would be making an appointment with HR or possibly a lawyer.

    4. Pommette*

      I have OCD. Some of my compulsions involved counting speech elements and tics. Even though that compulsion has been under control for over a decade, the idea of having to participate in an Um-counting session gives me cold sweats.

      Counting compulsions are one of the more common manifestations of OCD. So we can add all of those sufferers to the big pool of people (people with speech impediments, people with social anxiety….) for whom the forced speech therapy exercise proposed by the OP’s boss could be harmful. It’s a bad idea on so many fronts.

    5. Observer*

      I don’t stutter, but I *do* know stutterers, and this is classic.

      The worst of it is that not only does it make the immediate situation worse for most stutterers, but for some it exacerbates their overall problem in other contexts.

    6. Anony Mouse*

      I struggle with social anxiety and a speech impediment (oh yay, double the fun), which were contributing factors to my being kicked out of grad school (which has given me a HUGE complex about how I speak and how I interact with people). So this activity would be a complete nightmare for me. I’ve gone to therapy to address these issues, but I’m still very self conscious about making mistakes on those fronts and being penalized for having those issues again.

      If I talk too fast my mom would abruptly cut me off with things like, “WHAT WHAT SLOW DOWN I CAN’T UNDERSTAND YOU” or “You’re too staccato!”, or sometimes pick at my word choices. I’ve also encountered someone pretending to fall asleep (complete with fake snoring) if I was struggling to get something out (which makes me talk really fast because I’m afraid I’m boring people, which then became a bad habit I had to train myself out of).

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I got sent to speech therapy in grade school because I talk too fast. Still do, though I try to be aware of it and slow down.

    7. Not So NewReader*

      A friend has mild Turrets. When they did a speech, my friend was super worried about their verbal and physical tics. I can see people getting really tense here.

  16. Stephanie*

    I get the motivation, but the execution, um…*

    A better way to do this would be to have an opt-in workshop with Toastmasters or similar.

    *Ok, that was an accident, but it fits here.

    1. bossy*

      * That is a great example of the fact that the “filler” words are actually conveying meaning in some uses!

  17. anonykins*

    Psychology research shows that an audience views use of ‘um’ negatively and ‘uh’ positively. The theory is that ‘um’ indicates unpreparedness, while ‘uh’ indicates a short pause to gather thoughts. Your boss shouldn’t lump the two together!

    1. Anon today...and tomorrow*

      But the staff isn’t part of Toastmasters. :(

      I did Toastmasters for several years and loved it, but there’s really no way to ever get the “Um, Uh, or Like” out of my regular speaking. To do so would mean that everything I said would be prepared ahead of time. I know there are situations where “Um, Uh, Like” are overused (I have a cousin who drops the word “like” in every 4th word whether it makes sense there or not) and that’s annoying…but that would be more of an individual coaching thing, right?

  18. Mike C.*

    I hope someone etches “uh” and “er” and “uh” and “like” into the paint of her car. This is cruel and demeaning.

    /Note how the use of gendered slurs and symbols that are more traditionally utilized when keying a car is avoided! Progress! :D

    1. RVA Cat*

      The usual things keyed onto cars gave me an idea – what if someone (who had presumably given their resignation notice) decided to replace every “um” or “uh” with a swear word? Basically “what would Samuel L. Jackson do?”

      1. Lily Rowan*

        I used to talk like that myself, in certain settings. The f word was my filler!

        1. OhNo*

          I don’t use the f word specifically, but when talking to myself swear words in general are definitely my filler words. Various synonyms for “butt” definitely show up with shocking regularity.

      2. aebhel*

        Heh, my thoughts exactly. This is actually why I say ‘um’ and ‘uh’ in professional contexts more often than personal ones (although it’s still not egregious, I don’t think): my casual speech tends to be heavily seasoned with profanity, and removing it leaves a gap in the rhythm!

      3. LQ*

        This is funny I had a couple of spots today where I REALLY wanted to swear and switched out an ahhhhh instead.

  19. k*

    Man that sounds awful. That boss would hate me. I have a mild speech impediment and use filler words often to help cope when I get stuck on words.

  20. nnn*

    Everyone should band together and unanimously insist that the speaker said “um” exactly zero times. If the boss says “Jane, you said ‘um’ 27 times”, everyone else says “No she didn’t, I was counting very carefully”.

    1. Tau*

      “I am absolutely certain that Jane said ‘um’ exactly -7+3i times. I was paying very close attention!”

    2. Semprini!*

      And building on that, derail discussions of “um” with productive and supportive comments about the actual content of the presentation.

      “No, Jane didn’t say Um at all. But more importantly, her comments on the pros and cons of cloud-based apps were extremely insightful, and should be incorporated into our company’s virtual teapot implementation strategy.”

    3. Pommette*

      I like it!

      Everyone could also arbitrarily establish widely different totals. And argue those vehemently.

      So I counted 16 ‘ums’…
      That’s ridiculous. He clearly ‘um’ed 421 times.
      Were we listening to the same speech? Because there were 37 ‘um’s in there.

      1. MarsJenkar*

        Since I couldn’t outright lie about “um” count (not in my nature), I’d probably say something like “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention to the count of verbal tics, I was trying to concentrate on *what the speaker was actually saying*.” True enough, too.

        1. nnn*

          Building on that, it wouldn’t be an outright lie to say “I didn’t notice the speaker say um”, since we normally don’t notice that sort of thing if we’re listening attentively to what the speaker was actually saying.

  21. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Serious questions: does your boss not have enough to do? Is she avoiding making some decisions or avoiding working on a major project? Has she been putting off relevant work? Did she come under some recent scrutiny?

    I ask because I used to have a boss who would get hyper-focused on the tiniest things, especially during crunch time. After a couple of years, I assumed it was because she intentionally or unintentionally didn’t want to deal with the Crap du Jour. That wouldn’t have bothered me if she didn’t make a zillion times my salary.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I’ve noticed that there are some personality types that use compulsive bullshit like this as an escape from actual pressure and responsibilities, yeah.

      1. TL -*

        Cough. It’s how some of us process stress. Though generally we manage to not put it all on others (and not let it impact our productivity.)

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          Cough cough. I can get REAAAAAL particular about paragraph spacing when I’m on deadline.

          1. Aurion*

            *shifty eyes* I may have talked to my boss about the font kerning on our electronic newsletter to avoid the things I should’ve been doing.

    1. Kowalski! Options!*

      Plus it kind of makes you wonder what kind of filler language WOULD be appropriate. For example, what if every “um” was replaced by, “I would appreciate a moment at this point to complete my thoughts”, every “uh” was “I am actively seeking your interjection at this point of my utterance” and every “y’know” was, “Your feedback at this juncture would be very much appreciated”?
      Would Sheldon Cooper-ing it make it sound any better?

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Or you could substitute another interjection. Like….meep.

        “So, meep, in conclusion….”

        1. EmKay*

          I use “meep” as hello in emails and on Skype, this would be right up my alley!

        2. Putting Out Fires, Esq*

          That’s what my wee kitty says instead of meow like a regular cat. So much that we have renamed her Meep.

        1. mrs__peel*

          I’d run my eyes back and forth, too, like Data on “Star Trek” does when he looks up information.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          “So that , buffering, concludes my, buffering, thoughts regarding these, buffering, practice speeches we must, buffering, do.”

          Yeah. I could really make “buffering” work for me.

    2. EA*

      There is something so, idk what the word is, maybe empathy lacking about this.

      She never took a minute to think that some people might not like this.

  22. Jubilance*

    OMG I’d be so annoyed at this.

    Listen, even the best public speakers say “um” or “uh” especially when they are speaking off the cuff. I consider President Obama one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard, and he uses both all the time. Unless you’re reciting a speech from memory or using a teleprompter, no one is going to be able to avoid using filler words.

  23. Lillian*

    I wonder if op works in high end hospitality. This is definitely a thing there. If not, your boss sounds kind of nuts.

  24. Amber Rose*

    Get everyone together and talk to her. If she won’t be reasonable about this, I recommend you get together and just flat out refuse to count each other’s verbal tics. If she wants to be a jerk and call people out she can do it alone.

    This would actually upset me enough that I’d purposefully write in a bunch of um’s, say something really shocking in the middle, and then at the end I’d ask people if they heard what I was saying or if they were too busy counting. Because I guarantee trying to count something is more distracting than uh um every now and then in a speech.

  25. animaniactoo*

    I suspect that I would be doing a George Carlin 7 Words routine when it came to my turn…

    There are some things worth going down in flames for.

  26. super anon*

    My mother used to do this to me when I was a child. Except she would do it secretly over the course of a day and then present me with the evidence of how I couldn’t speak properly and use it to shame me into being a better speaker, somehow. She would also occasionally do it publicly, like in a store or if I was talking to someone. Surprisingly, public embarrassment and shame didn’t cure me of using filler words.

    I would push back against this hard. It was demoralizing and infantilizing and just plain embarrassing when it happened to me as a kid, and as an adult I would not put up with it. I like the advice of pushing back as a group, although I also wonder what would happen if you refused to do a presentation all together?

    1. Allison*

      My mom would often take me aside during parties or family gatherings, and tell me I said something wrong. My tone or choice of words was bad. To be fair, after I saw Good Burger, I said “uhhhh” a lot, so yeah, that needed to be fixed. On the one hand, it did make me more aware of how I spoke. On the other hand, it made me super self conscious and anxious about how I spoke, like everything that came out of my mouth had to be perfect or people will judge me.

  27. Pup Seal*

    Your boss reminds me of one of my business professors. Back when I was in business school, we were required to take a business communication class where we had to give presentations a lot. You would lose points for saying “um” too much. Apparently I didn’t really say “um” like the rest of the class, but I said “and so” a lot, and I still loss points over it. Knowing we were graded by how many times we said those words made presenting more stressful.

  28. High Score!*

    While too many like, uh, umms are annoying, your boss’s technique is borderline abusive. If I had to do this, I would pepper my speech with these words and yell, “woo! High score!” when I got my number.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*


      All walking around, high fiving each other. “BEAT THAT, WAKEEN!”

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      My classmates and I used to do this all the time. I’ve only done it once at a workplace, but this seems like the right time to deploy “word bingo.”

  29. Newby*

    My dad used to do this to me in high school. Every time I said “um” or “like” he would immediately interrupt me and make me start the sentence over, even in normal conversation! Occasionally I would yell at him that I was using “like” correctly in a comparative statement and he needed to let me finish. I don’t use “um” or “like” much when I talk because of it, but I would not say that it was worth it.

    1. Charlie*

      Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that leaves you real lonely at the nursing home. Don’t ever do this, parents.

  30. LR*

    I’d be so incredibly tempted to just go up there and ‘um’ my ass off when it was my turn. “I dare you to even try to keep track of this.”

    1. Jaguar*

      Similarly, I would be very tempted to give my presentation with no “uhms” or “likes” and then, at the end, go, “uhmuhmuhmuhmuhm like” and sit down.

      1. nonegiven*

        Or, last sentence, “So, um, this is like, the last, you know, time I will be ahh participating in this like totally, you know, publicly um humiliating like exercise.

  31. Allison*

    Gah, I do not like when people unnecessarily nitpick how I do stuff, when I did not ask them to help me get better.

    If I sign up for a class on something, be it dancing or public speaking, the instructor can absolutely look for flaws in how I do the thing and give me corrections. I want that, actually. If I don’t like how they do it, I can decide not to go there anymore. But where I take dance classes, peer feedback is only allowed if the instructor says “talk to your partner about how it went”, or the occasional class exercise where two people dance and the rest of the class watches and gives feedback. In general, I hate dancing with follows who give unsolicited feedback, makes me think they’re always evaluating my skills which makes me super uncomfortable.

    But at work, where I am in no way public facing, I would not like having to submit to exercises like this. All of my verbal communication is internal, mostly focused within the department, talking to coworkers and my bosses. If my boss wants me to improve my speech habits, he’d better have a darn good reason for it beyond “everyone should be good at public speaking” or “filler words are bad and no one should ever use them.” And honestly, even then, I’d prefer a far less public type of instruction.

  32. Solidus Pilcrow*

    Her idea is that each pep rally, two people will present some sort of five-minute speech on their department and we will all watch and count how many times the person says “um,” “uh,” or “like.”

    If everyone is counting “um” and “like” and so-forth, is anyone actually listening to the content of the speech? Really, what is the boss’ goal here? To have people learn about different departments or to improve presentation skills? Her method doesn’t do either very well.

    I’d get the whole of the audience to not count, and when the boss asks, say “We were so riveted with the advancements of spout design that we didn’t notice!”

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yes, this places verbal mistakes above content. I have a huge problem with that. The boss is making it all about the presentation itself. What about the content? It’s as if what is being said does not matter.

  33. sorbus*

    I would be sorely tempted to respond to all of her criticisms with The Dude’s immortal words, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, uh, your opinion, man.”

  34. Matt*

    This letter definitely reminds me of several Toastmasters meetings I’ve been to. As other commentators have said, that particular TM method can be helpful but isn’t something that should necessarily be made a mandatory part of your office culture. Maybe talk to the boss and see if he or the company would be willing to sponsor or host a TM chapter at your office if he really wants to improve this sort of thing.

  35. Hysterical Linguist*

    I’m a linguistics professor at a university whose name you’d all recognize. Saying “uh,” “um,” and “like” is a total non-issue. What a miserable and humiliating waste of time.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Say hi to the folks at LanguageLog.com for us, Professor Zwicky!

      (Just kidding–I’m sure that’s not you, but I thought I’d take the chance to throw in a shout-out for my favorite linguistics blog and my favorite professor name ever.)

      1. Hysterical Linguist*

        Hahaha, no to both. But I did study under some of the Language Log crew :)

  36. LadyPhoenix*

    I would either do an entire speech from The Dude, or make a whole song that consisted only of “ummms” and “uhhhhhs”, just to mess with her. Then I would count every time she said those words. I course would encourage everyone to do this or just sing the good ol song “Fuck dis shit I’m out”.

  37. nuqotw*

    5 minutes of meditation, saying “Om” at various intervals. Yes, I am petty and childish like that. No, I probably wouldn’t have the nerve to do it.

  38. Fake Eleanor*

    You don’t get to appoint yourself as someone else’s sensei. Full stop. Other people aren’t your projects, and you don’t get to “teach” them — regardless of your methods — without their permission.

    (Kids/parents and actual student/teacher relationships excepted, of course.)

    1. TL -*

      You have to teach people lots of things at work – how to do their job, for instance.

      It’s not inappropriate to tell people you will teach them a necessary skill at work. The problem here is the method and the relevance, which is unlikely to be high.

    2. LQ*

      It actually is my job to teach people all kinds of stuff at work. And sometimes they have to be there. Because my job is to make sure they understand data security is important and their only “permission” is that they have this job. By accepting this job you have to accept that you will learn about data security. And you know what? I’m fine with that. That’s incredibly important. I don’t think that learning is the problem here at all.

      1. Fake Eleanor*

        “Without their permission” is an important part of this phrase, and “I’d like to gain/improve skills for my job” (or even “these skills are necessary for you to do your job”) means they’ve given you permission.

        But you couldn’t — or shouldn’t — decide that you’d like to address their regrettable table manners, since it’s not directly related to their job. Your pet peeves aren’t justification enough.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      The layers here are what is getting me, they don’t need it for their work and her teaching methods are NOT good. I wonder how many people will actually improve here?

  39. Nervous Accountant*

    Oh my god. I’m an accountant and I ‘m on the phone with clients all.day.long and I still say like/um (I am better but not perfect at avoiding “like” or “Kwim?”) Out of the 10000s of clients I’ve spoken to in the last few years, only 1 had an issue with it. I’d be moritfied if my coworkers/peers pointed this out.

  40. A Teacher*

    High school teacher that is also the speech team coach and had a lot of kids make our state tournament this year. All of my speech students are polished and they still have ums/uhs/likes etc in their speech pattern. Heck, I use them in my speech pattern during direct instruction at times. Its called being human. When I grade presentations, I will write down if they say um/uh/like a lot–no joke, I had a student say “like” 127 times in a 5 minute presentation a few years ago. I think he lost a few points for presentation to the class but I certainly didn’t call him out on it in class.

    People like your boss drive me crazy.

    1. Muriel Heslop*

      Also a teacher and I definitely track verbal filler as so many of my students overuse it to a distracting degree. But I am trying to help them not shame them so I provide them that feedback privately or in writing – not in front of everyone! Talking at a reasonable speed is generally a bigger issue – slow down and breathe, kids.

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        Yes. Even if this was a reasonable thing for the manager to be focusing on with her reports, this isn’t the way to do it!

  41. TootsNYC*

    So very many people have no paradigm for “boss”–they ONLY have “teacher” and “parent” examples in their lives. And that’s all the imagination they can think of.

    I think this is one of the things that should be covered explicitly in every “transition to management” class that people should take.

    1. Manders*

      That’s a really good point. A ton of office dysfunction could be avoided if people were more mindful of this.

      One of the big problems with the “teacher” mindset is that in a classroom, the teacher always knows the right answer. Sometimes a boss doesn’t know the right answer, or has a pet peeve that isn’t universal, or needs to rely on their staff to go find the right answer or come up with several possible right answers.

    2. TootsNYC*

      The other thing about it (as pointed out below by Ann A. Mouse) is that people who ARE REALLY teachers learn how to effectively coach and teach people.

      People who are wannabe’s often don’t really know how to do these things effectively; they remember snippets from their actual teachers, stereotypes from movies, etc., and fumble along.

      And the ones who are parent-paradigm-ers don’t have great parenting skills either!

    3. Observer*

      Even with those paradigms, you shouldn’t be stuck on this kind of stupidity. I’ve had some fairly stupid teachers. (Haven’t we all?) But only ONE ever did something like this – and it was a one time deal, fortunately. NOT ONE of my teachers ever made this kind of thing an ongoing tactic.

      Which is to say that even if you had a teacher who did this, you must have had plenty of others who didn’t.

  42. Ann A. Mouse*

    I’d gently suggest to Alison and to the community here that more and more teachers these days are well aware of how to provide constructive feedback to students and how to get them to provide feedback to each other. Many young people are at sensitive times in their lives, and it’s important that feedback is delivered in ways that will help them feel good about implementing it. That basically never involves public, whole-group feedback; it’s best deployed one-on-one between teacher and student, or in a partner- or small-group peer setting after appropriate norms have been modeled and established. For students who might well be feeling very anxious and tentative about public speaking, informing them that they said “um” or “like” 27 times in front of all their peers sounds like a great way to make sure they will never speak up in class again. Coaching them privately, in conjunction with a supportive peer or two and with strategies to speak more confidently, is much more likely to effect that change for young people–and similarly so, I think, for adults.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      To be clear, I’m definitely not suggesting that teachers should do this! I’m saying that the manager sounds like she’s unclear on her role (and possibly unclear on how teachers should operate as well).

      1. Ann A. Mouse*

        Ah, I didn’t think you were! I’d just hate for people to walk away from this article with the impression that most *teachers* think they should do this. (In case you can’t tell, I’m a former classroom teacher and now spend my days coaching teachers–most of my teachers know that “saving face” is a non-negotiable for young people, and public criticism/shaming is often likely to get you the exact opposite result of what you want when you’re working with teenagers.)

        1. TootsNYC*

          yeah, wannabe’s don’t usually have any real skills in the arena.

          If they had those skills, they’d be amateurs, not wannabe’s.

    2. Kowalski! Options!*

      But only for those who actively seek out the support. Demanding that everyone do it because of one person’s particular hang up is, at best, highly counterproductive (as most posters on here have pointed out).

  43. TootsNYC*

    I’m actually half serious with this:

    You should all just start mocking it–as a group. The next time someone gives a speech this way, the first time they say “um,” you should all cry out, “Um!” with big grins on your faces (or “one!” then “two!” etc). Maybe even a fist-pump or something. Make it funny–a group bonding for ridiculousness. And high-five the person for how many “um’s” and “uh’s” she got in there.

    Be careful not to get snarky about it; just be really enthusiastic, and beam out waves of “liking everybody,” and “finding human foibles adorably humorous.”

    1. Cherith Ponsonby*

      I think this is an awesome idea and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

      But I’d strongly suggest giving the speaker a heads-up first, or having someone volunteer with full knowledge of what they’re getting into. Current Me would be 100% up for something like this even as a surprise, but Crippling Social Anxiety Me from a decade or two ago would have absolutely freaked if she wasn’t prepared for it.

  44. Detective Rosa Diaz*

    This is a common Toastmasters tactic. But Toastmasters is a club you sign up for. Sounds like this person went to a meeting and now thinks they know what they’re about. … Such a bad idea. Many people hate public speaking anyway, so this is just adding another layer of awfulness!

  45. Yet Even Another Alison*

    I understand where the boss is coming from. The use of “um” and “uh” undermine the credibility of the speaker. Growing up, my parents would lecture me about how uneducated it sounded to use fillers like this in conversation. In public speaking, it is even worse. However, IMHO, I believe the boss is going about the teaching in a manner that will serve to embarrass her staff. People don’t learn under these types of conditions. Also, the boss may want to accept that fact that not everyone cares about speaking properly. Self improvement and development is not on the agenda of many people.

    1. Miss Nomer*

      I guess I can understand that in a very formal setting, but I certainly wouldn’t think less of my coworkers for using “uh” during an internal meeting, especially as early as we like to hold them. However, I would think less of someone who made a big deal of someone else’s use of “um”. It seems a little…condescending, I guess, to insist that anyone who uses these phrases is somehow less professional or concerned with developing their skills than someone who speaks more formally.

    2. fposte*

      Your parents aren’t entirely correct on this, though; as noted above, it’s linguistically common and at times even preferable for speech to contain these markers, and it’s by no means a mark of lack of education.

    3. Mazzy*

      But using filler words is just one of many type of presentation blunders. Do you get to call out if the voice is too monotone? Materials boring? Delivery too cliche? The preso having no point? Or no resolution? Or relying too much on a PowerPoint with no substance or life?

      1. Alice*

        Well, OP does say that boss “lets you know what else you could work on.” So I think the boss is probably offering broader feedback about other kinds of blunders.

    4. Lablizard*

      I disagree. In my experience, even in formal conference presentations, the absence of natural speech patterns, including fillers, indicates to me that the person memorized what they are saying and don’t really have a great handle on the topic, hence why they had to memorize or read notes. This impression tends to be reinforced in question/answer sessions. The more “free form” speakers, to me, have more depth of understanding. The exceptions tend to be people who have a a rehersed sounding presentation because they are presenting in a second language. They tend to know the topic, but are worried about tripping over their language.

    5. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      “The use of “um” and “uh” undermine the credibility of the speaker. Growing up, my parents would lecture me about how uneducated it sounded to use fillers like this in conversation.”

      They don’t undermine credibility, and your parents were waaaay off base. Incredibly educated people use fillers like this in conversation all the time – if anything, more often than most – and as noted throughout the thread, fillers serve as discourse markers, allow people to catch up, and serve as important subconscious signifiers. Speaking properly can and does include fillers, with the only exceptions being incredibly formal modes of speech.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Now, of course, if you take it to an unhealthy extreme, it’s going to make you sound like an idiot, just as completely eliminating all filler makes you sound like you’re angry and/or socially maladroit and cold. Long, drawn out ummmmmms and aaaaahhhhhhs and so on are not the mark of someone with their thoughts together. But take it from a PhD, who knows lots of similarly credentialed people: we use filler all the time. What’s more, we know why it’s important.

        1. many bells down*

          Yeah, if someone’s using them repeatedly in a single sentence, “Now uhhh the last year we uhhh had about 50 umm new clients” then they are really frustrating to listen to. But if you’re using it as a segue *between* thoughts it’s almost not even noticeable. “Now, ah, moving on, here’s this year’s numbers”

        2. The OG Anonsie*

          What’s more, we know why it’s important.

          Exactly this. Effective communication and strict technicalities are frequently exclusive practices, and knowing which direction to go and when is crucial.

          People who focus entirely on the base technicality of language remind of me the lab TAs I had in college who would make intensely precise formatting requirements for reports so they could grade based on that without having to seriously evaluate the content. It’s a real forest for the trees way of evaluation and often comes, in my opinion, from a lack of actual expertise in the critic. They don’t have (or can’t be bothered to come up with) more informative feedback, so they focus on the “uh” or the spacing of the table columns as a way to exercise some amount of authority on the subject.

    6. aebhel*

      I have literally never met anyone who didn’t use filler words in conversation, and I come from a very educated background. Using excessive filler words can make a person sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about, but in general, they’re part of the natural cadence of speech, particularly when someone is called upon to give a 5-minute off-the-cuff soliloquy.

      Also, calling this ‘self-improvement’ is using a very subjective definition of ‘improvement’. Not everyone wants to speak like a robot.

  46. Miss Nomer*

    OP, my coworkers and I managed to squash something slightly similar to this at work. I’m not sure if it’ll work for your boss, but our boss can be very impatient and doesn’t like his time wasted, so we capitalized on that. We discussed it and our most senior coworker decided to approach Boss and say, “I understand what we’re trying to accomplish with X, but unfortunately it’s making it so that I miss the content of the meetings and ultimately wastes time and reduces productivity. Would you be open to Y (basically a suggestion that we all work on X individually and receive feedback if something is an issue)?” At first he kind of resisted, but when two more coworkers approached him (separately) with the same kind of thing, he relented. And now that it’s something he looks for in performance reviews, it’s kind of diluted with all the other stuff.
    Best of luck to you. This can be very annoying.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      The second voice principle. The first person saying it gets ignored or worse. The second person saying the same thing gets listened to and gets a response.

  47. Venus Supreme*

    In high school our Vice Principal held daily morning announcements. My friends and I, being the brats we were, would count how many times he said “um.” We were 14/15 years old. Not adults.

    This is truly sophomoric.

    1. Miss Nomer*

      We did something similar in high school, but with a teacher who couldn’t stop saying “yeah?” or “correct?” at the end of sentences, even though we had no real way of knowing that it was correct because it was the first time we were hearing it. I think it was kind of like “are you still with me?” but it came across very oddly. Thankfully, I don’t think he ever found out we were counting; my siblings have told me his ways have not changed.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        I had a prof in college who did this in a lecture class. Every single sentence ended with …..ok? or …..right? It was really obnoxious and made it tough to listen to his lectures.

        1. Miss Nomer*

          You’d think they’d have been observed at some point and the observer would point this out. I hope that if I ever develop such a strong, annoying tic that someone will point it out to me.

  48. Manager-at-Large*

    Improving public speaking by giving experience in front of your team or organization – this can be a good idea, especially if you want people to present to other departments, run client calls, even speak up in meetings.
    But – it needs to be a safe space for the anxious and unskilled – not one with required participation, not one with the Ah counter.

  49. Jessica*

    When I was 17, I was interviewed by the local paper, and it appeared with an exact transcription of what I said, including every “like” and “you know.” Because this is not the way anyone normally writes, I looked like an idiot in print. Or possibly like it was the 80s (it was!) and I was a teenager.
    I found this very humiliating at the time. The press hasn’t bothered me much since, but I resolved that if it ever happened again, I would either (a) refuse to be interviewed in person, agreeing to only answer questions in writing, or (b) take the utmost care to mentally formulate each sentence before reciting it, so that it didn’t contain filler.
    I can understand that in some cases, like a court record, there really should be a precise transcription of what was said. But for a fluff article in a small-town paper about the local high schoolers winning scholarships? Hardly. I think it would’ve been appropriate to edit out the filler. But who knows, maybe that reporter was of the same mind as OP’s boss, and was trying to make a point about Kids Today by making me look foolish in print.

    1. Trout 'Waver*

      I had a similar incident when I was that age. I also now don’t talk to the press.

    2. TootsNYC*

      As an editor, I defend fiercely the responsibility of journalists to snip those out.

      We are transferring spoken speech to the page, and it’s our responsibility to not let people look stupid in the process. Some journalists think it’s unethical to change the tiniest thing in a quote, but I disagree (and the Supreme Court does as well).

      At my pub, I’m on the warpath over “gonna” and “hadda.” I want them changed; “gonna” is not a word, it’s just a slurred pronunciation of “going to.”

      The time I really noticed it was when we interviewed a rapper, and the whole thing was full of those. It looked SO VERY condescending.

      1. aebhel*

        IME, too, reporters aren’t always even-handed about how they transcribe these things, which can serve to reinforce stereotypes.

    3. Lily Rowan*

      Years ago, my big boss at the time was the subject of a nasty negative article (by someone who has turned out to be really famous, as it turns out!), but one of the things they did to make him look bad was transcribe his quotes exactly, to the “um.”

  50. Katie the Fed*

    I honestly think I would quit a job that made me do this. I have a horrible fear of public speaking, and I can SORT OF do it, but I don’t enjoy it. I also have a fear of being judged, so really this is a combination of terrible things. The only way it could be worse is if you dropped live spiders on me while I was speaking.

    On the other hand, a Toastmasters group at work might be a great initiative if you wanted to suggest that.

    1. Caro in the UK*

      Are you me? :) In all seriousness, I also hate public speaking; I can do it if I have to, but go bright red with embarrassment no matter how prepared I am, which of course then makes me more embarrassed and flustered. I also have a fear of being judged (and spiders!) so this would be hell for me.

      I’m not sure I would quit a job I LOVED for this, but I would hate every second of having to do it. However, if the job was anything less than perfect in every other way, then I would be out of there.

    2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      I’ve given unrehearsed running commentary and answered questions for an auditorium with a thousand people in it while the Mars rovers were landing, and I would still have an unbelievable level of difficulty with this.

      1. TL -*

        I do a lot of public speaking and this would not discomfort me (I do a lot of public speaking towards middle and high school kids. You get a pretty thick skin after a while.) But I would find it incredibly rude and a combination of ineffective and unnecessary.

        Mostly, I think I would find it incredibly rude and I know the quality of my speaking would drop because I respond to rudeness with a tight monotone and a complete lack of embellishments.

  51. my name is Rory*

    This letter reminds of the one from the manager who had an employee that was being investigated for racism for saying a POC candidate wasn’t well-spoken. Lots of people seem to think that there is only one way to sound professional and that certain other manners of speech (including filler words) are unprofessional. But we are all human and even the best speakers use filler words in their speech. Unless you are reading from a pre-written speech that you have rehearsed there are going to be filler words. Sometimes even if you rehearsed.

    (Btw, was there ever an update to the letter I mentioned above?)

    1. the other Emily*

      I thought of that letter too. There hasn’t been an update yet but I still hope for one, it’s definitely on my list of letters I want updates on.

      Your manager sounds like she has no idea what she doing OP. I think making people do this is cruel and if it were me I would try to get as many coworkers as I could to push back against this policy.

    2. Observer*

      The key difference is that the manager in that letter actually had some pretty solid grounds for making that judgment call. It wasn’t close to a tomahto vs tomayto type thing there.

    3. BuildMeUp*

      I remember some people being pretty rude to that OP in the comments, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t send in an update.

  52. Lily in NYC*

    My dept. often has to give presentations to the deputy mayor so we practice them on each other first. This will only make sense to Game of Thrones fans: We actually had an app that mimicked the “shame bell” from Cersei’s walk of shame – and if you screwed up, someone would set off the shame bell sound. I think it is so obnoxious – one guy really hated it and left within a year (for various reasons but the shame bell was the final straw). But we don’t do it any more now that most of those people are gone.

  53. Troutwaxer*

    Now that you’ve done the public shaming and are improving your duckspeak, maybe you should move on to the two minute hate. That would be doubleplusgood!

  54. Katie Fay*

    I think we can blame Toastmasters for this … they advocate counting ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ rather than focus on content and cohesion. Shaming and making people feel even more uncomfortable than they already are rarely works constructively.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      No, they advocate counting them as just one aspect, but also focus on content and cohesion. And it’s a voluntary program for people who want to learn to give better speeches- the entire purpose.

      They also don’t call out the number or shame you publicly for the mistakes.

  55. saby*

    I know this is unhelpful and petty but I would be tempted to make a big deal of avoiding “legitimate” uses of the word “like” in the manager’s hearing. “This is just like the last project — sorry, Manager, I know you hate that word, I mean, this is very similar to the last project…” or “Thanks for picking up the coffee order, Manager, I like my coffee black — or, sorry, I prefer my coffee black, I know you don’t want us to use that word!” or “I’d like to start by… oh, Manager, I’m so sorry, I did it again!”

  56. Gene*

    Former grandboss used ‘basically’ like commas. One time he was giving us a talk on something and I started making ticking each one on my note pad, counting them. Apparently, he noticed and after t meeting asked what I was ticking off. Since we had (and still have, he’s now a senior manager at another agency), I told him. His response was, “I do?!” Since that day, his ‘basically’s have dropped to places they only need to be.


  57. Falling Diphthong*

    The Merriam Webster link makes me wonder if a billboard advertisement that mixed up they’re/there/their was deliberate. So that the ad would engage people, and they would really remember it, albeit with rage in their hearts.

    1. OnFire*

      I’m a snob: I cannot bring myself to spend money with a business that (deliberately or inadvertently) uses grammar/spelling errors in its written advertisements. It’s fingernail-on-chalkboard level of irritating to me, and I just.can’t.do it.

  58. Alice*

    I notice that the phrase “The Shaming” is coming not from the boss but from “a bunch of us.” I mean, sure, the boss clearly needs to reassess, because this exercise is not accomplishing what she wanted. And maybe the boss made a bad decision by providing feedback publicly instead of one-to-one — maybe she was aiming to create a culture of reflection and support, but it’s not working. And it’s definitely a problem if she’s only discussing points of potential improvement instead of also pointing out good features in each person’s presentation content or style….


    I think Allison is going pretty far to say the boss “decided to misuse the authority of her job — and misuse the time of her staff — to pursue something that really shouldn’t be this high of a priority.” Sure, maybe literals ums and ahs are not important in these staffers’ roles, but OP did say the boss give other feedback too (“what else you could work on”).

    If the information sharing (two 5-minute presentations per month) is necessary anyway — which the letter doesn’t address, so who knows — then an extra five-minute discussion of what went well and what could be improved in the presentations could be an easy way to help staff develop the public speaking skills that the boss thinks are important for her staff.

    OP, I’d encourage you to get your boss to deliver feedback in private, and to highlight both positives and negatives (and not just a count of filler words). Good luck.

    1. Trout 'Waver*

      People counting words aren’t listening to the content. Those things are mutually exclusive. So if there was a business need for the presentations, it isn’t being addressed in this context.

      1. Alice*

        You’re right that THIS audience isn’t listening to content — busy counting words and thinking “Arrgh, I have to go through ‘The Shaming’ next month.”
        But it’s certainly possible to listen actively for content and form at the same time. How much attention does it take to tick off each instance of filler while also attending to content? I often make personal notes about stylistic tricks that I want to imitate when I’m in a presentation audience and taking notes for myself (not minutes, I mean) — things like “Joaquin will send out the state geocoding procedure document and a workflow using MMQGIS. Good response when [derailer!colleague] started in, steal that.”
        Now, the boss didn’t implement this well, because OP and the other staff are taking away the message that reducing filler is the boss’s only priority and they’re feeling stressed and anxious about it. But I think many people are reacting so negatively to this because of a fear of public speaking — which can be very severe (and sincere).

        1. TL -*

          Eh, when I listen to things for style and structure, I often miss a lot of the content. If I listen to something for content, I miss a lot of structure (unless it’s bad!). Both cases, I would be able to give you a general overview of what the other aspect was, but I wouldn’t be able to provide the detailed analysis and understanding that I would if I was only focusing on one.

          And I make short videos from interviews, so I have a lot of practice listening both ways. People just aren’t good at multitasking.

        2. Em Too*

          Um. It can be done I’m sure, but it’d be very hard to listen well to content while trying to count every instance. I notice most typos when I read, but when I’m actually proofreading it gets three separate reads – one for grammar/typos, one for coherence and flow, and one for content.

    2. Observer*


      Firstly, there is a difference between counting the occurrences of almost ANY factor in speech and “actively listening for stylistic tricks”. The first is is incompatible with listening to content. In fact, it’s also largely incompatible with the second!

      Secondly, even if the boss is mentioning the good stuff, it is CLEARLY being overshadowed by the negative. That’s not surprising. What the boss is doing is so out of line, demeaning and humiliating, that it’s the most likely reaction. It’s not just that the boss is targeting something in a public manner, and overdoing it. She is clearly trying to shame people into stopping to use these terms.

      The bottom line is that this is not a possibly good idea poorly applied. This is an utterly inappropriate idea and has no place in the workplace.

      1. Alice*

        Sorry, I just don’t agree that public feedback has no place in the workplace. Maybe not this place in this workplace — well, definitely not this place at this workplace, because it’s gone over like a lead balloon.

        But I don’t see why feedback about someone’s skill at public speaking would be insulting or “demeaning and humiliating,” especially if given in private.
        Lots of people could do with getting better at public speaking — that’s not a character flaw or a personal weakness to be ashamed of, and it’s also not an immutable feature of one’s personality. Sure, there are things like a stutter, strong accent, or nails on a chalkboard voice that can’t be changed — but people dealing with those issues can try to make themselves stronger communicators by changing how they design slidedecks, for example, or making more eye contact with the audience. Some people are good at the skill and some aren’t, but everyone who’s not actually phobic can get better relative to where they started.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If it’s something that’s impacting their effectiveness at their job, then sure — explain to them what the impact is and give them actionable feedback privately.

          But compared to the situation in this letter, that’s apples and oranges.

        2. Observer*

          This is not just “feedback”. It’s negative feedback that’s not only public but that’s designed to be an active pile on. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

          Furthermore, what the boss is after is not really a major issue – he’s not trying to get rid OVERUSE of fillers, but ANY use. And, it’s apparently not even all that relevant to people’s jobs.

          There is no way to justify this by references to things that are totally different.

        3. aebhel*

          I don’t necessarily think that public feedback has no place in the workplace, but this isn’t ‘public feedback’ on improving public speaking; this is public group nitpicking of a single, relatively unimportant aspect of public speaking that happens to get on the manager’s nerves. The goal here, as described by the OP, isn’t ‘become a better public speaker overall’ but ‘stop using filler words.’ The manager may well believe that these are one and the same, but she’s wrong about that. Plenty of excellent public speakers use filler words occasionally.

          I don’t think that feedback about someone’s skill at public speaking is intrinsically insulting, demeaning, or humiliating. I do think that this manager’s approach to giving that feedback is all of those things.

    3. Allison*

      “The Shaming” sounds like a ritual in a dystopian novel. Like “The Salvaging,” or “The Reaping,” or simply “The Ceremony.”

    4. Daring Greatly*

      Hi Alice. I really appreciate your feedback. The topics aren’t of any importance or things we need to hear as a staff. My boss also doesn’t provide positive feedback. It’s- “here is how many “um”, “uh”, “and” you said.” The staff, however, will clap loud and say great job to whomever just presented so they don’t feel so bad. At the beginning of the presentations, my boss says, “who wants to count this time.” No one responds so she just ends up counting herself.

      I like your approach on how I should address this with my boss. I plan on saying something this coming week in a private conversation. I don’t want my boss to feel attacked, but I would like to express how I feel because it really bothers me.

  59. Sarah*

    Perhaps the OP can suggest to the boss that they start a Toastmasters club at work, which people can voluntarily sign up for?

    I’ve done Toastmasters, and having a position of ah-counter is of great help in removing ahs and ums from your speech. There is one person tasked to count ums, ahs, and other filler words, and also to beep or buzz whenever the ah or um is said. (I know of one club that uses a squeaky rubber chicken when someone says um or ah).

    However, as noted, this is meant to be VOLUNTARY, and it definitely throws people off to start with. It’s also not done when people are making a presentation – it’s done during the off the cuff speeches. It is not in keeping with a “prep rally”.

    1. TootsNYC*

      that might be a good tactic for getting rid of this as a big thing. It would free up company time for productivity, and it might create a better place for people to actually get better at public speaking.

    2. Daring Greatly*

      Hi Sarah. I really appreciate the feedback and suggestion. I think that’s a good idea to suggest a Toastmasters club at work. I don’t want my boss to feel attacked when I talk to her and I think bringing a suggestion will help. Her intention is good, I think, but the approach is awful… makes you feel less than afterward.

    3. Willow Sunstar*

      In the 2 clubs I belong to, we count during the entire meeting. But the report is given only at the end.

  60. Callie30*

    I had a teacher in 7th grade who would interrupt us if we said “um”, “like”, “uh”, or any filler words – and make us repeat a sentence until we spoke properly. Needless to say, after a few corrections and after that year, many of us rarely used filler words anymore. I still will use some if I’m anxious or nervous, but otherwise not. I really appreciate him for that.

    But what this person is doing is petty, in my opinion. You aren’t children anymore and unless it’s seriously affecting anything at work, it seems ridiculous to bring up on a regular basis.

    1. AnonRightNow*

      Just for another side to this… an 8th grade teacher of mine did something very similar. Many of us were not appreciative and I often felt picked on by it. It took several years of encouraging adults in my life to change the negative effect he had on me- I was too embarrassed to speak in class! In speaking to other classmates years later, there were more of us that felt shamed and stayed silent…

      1. Allycallie*

        That’s too bad. I could see that as a side effect too. It also depends on how the teacher did it, as well. Mine was fairly humorous about it, yet serious at the same time.

      2. Daring Greatly*

        Hi AnonRightNow. Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it. I’m a sensitive soul and this approach to curing the “um” and “uh” is exactly what I don’t need. It does make you feel picked up and demeaned in front of your peers. I’ve gone back and forth the past month about if I should speak up and say something to my boss. This forum of comments has really helped me get the courage I need to speak up. I have a lot of good advice now on how to handle this issue. Thank you!

    2. Vicki*

      On the other hand, after a few corrections, many of those students probably spoke up less and less in class.

      Interrupting is rude. Correcting in the middle of a sentence is rude. A rude teacher is showing the students that rudeness is OK.

      This is not OK.

  61. Troutwaxer*

    If the OP and their office-mates want to have some fun with this, they could all bring in items meant to use for a proper shaming. A dunce cap, a paddle, a T-shirt which reads “INEPPED” and maybe a little jar of ashes… stuff like that, and announce that the shaming is insufficiently horrible, and that nobody in the office will stop saying “um” until the stakes are much higher. The victim will then not merely be told that they have performed a certain number of “ums,” but that they must wear the dunce cap, accept a paddling, (one paddle for each “um”) plus wear the ashes and the “shirt of shame” for the rest of the day.

    Then they can announce that the manager is going first! Any manager who doesn’t get the point should be quit-upon en-masse. Then expense any of the items which have cost money.

    That’s my fantasy anyway!

  62. always in email jail*

    This is a tactic used in Toastmasters (there’s a designated “ah” counter for the meeting) but the difference there is PEOPLE HAVE A CHOICE! You JOIN toastmasters. Doing this at work with no choice is entirely different. And calling it “the shaming” is not helpful!

    1. Observer*

      A lot of people have mentioned this. There is also another major difference. There is a designated “ah counter”. It’s not everyone is sitting and counting. It’s a VERY different dynamic.

  63. Bostonian*

    I thought that was an interesting Globe article. And then I read the comments… yikes!

    *Covers face and pretends to not be from Boston*

  64. Observer*

    I’d ask your boss an additional question. Does he still want to have pep rallies? Because “pep rallies” are inherently incompatible with the kind of “correction” he is trying to accomplish.

  65. Kate the Little Teapot*

    As soon as I read the first four words … “we have public shamings” . . .

    I was just like oh nooooooooooooo I so feel for you.

    Poor OP!

  66. Noah*

    Boss is misusing a time-tested technique for dealing with verbal tics. If somebody really say “um” a lot, it has been proven effective to have them give a speech in front of somebody and have that person track the “ums” or even interrupt in some manner when they “um” (squirt bottle is popular). Boss is implementing a horribly bastardized version of that approach.

  67. Sprinkled with Snark*

    This is horrible! First of all, ums, ers, uhs, likes, etc are TERRIBLTY bad habits when it comes to oral presentations and demos. I am a former speech and communications professor, and I have successfully instructed my college students on how to eliminate these problems from their speech, and it’s NOT done by any kind of public shaming. That’s just about the WORST thing this manager could do.

    I can’t help cringing from all the people who are saying they purposely add those hiccups in their speech to sound “informal.” NO, please stop doing that! You will sound “informal” and connect to people when you get more confident about what you’re saying, and more comfortable with appearing in front of your audience. They are not conversational “fillers.” In fact, people who DO use them excessively are considered less intelligent, less knowledgeable about the subject, and more unprepared than people who are not. People who are great communicators are also promoted more quickly, earn higher salaries, and have more successful interviews.

    That being said, an occasional um or er or like every once in a while in normal conversation is no big deal. But think about it, when was the last time you heard a person give a prepared speech or presentation and use a lot of ums and ers? It’s very rare. If public speaking is a part of your career, it’s a skill that can be mastered and you will come across as far more successful. You might not even think about it as a young professional, but that’s the time to learn how to break those bad habits, which can be done with just a little effort on your part.

    So this boss “shaming” people by having the ums and ers counted is being counter-productive. We become better public speakers by being more comfortable with our peers. If you are a college graduate, OP, then you most likely already had some kind of required speech or communications class, so you can approach your boss with some knowledge and experience of your own. No speech coach or professional will tell ANYONE that this is the way to improve the people we coach. The public presentations are a great idea, but they should be left at that. YOu give your presentation, everyone claps, you sit down. It is not HER job to teach people these skills. These skills, however, will improve, with every presentation you deliver.

    1. BuildMeUp*

      I don’t think people are suggesting to add *lots* of filler words, but that the occasional one prevents it from sounding like the speaker is reading off of notecards. I’m assuming it’s in addition to other methods they’re using to sound more informal and connect with their audience.

      To me there’s a big difference between the occasional filler word (which is what I’ve seen commenters suggesting) and using filler words every sentence or two (which does seem excessive).

  68. Is It Performance Art*

    Because I’m really a 16 year old at heart I would be tempted to replace my filler words with new ones, either a collection of nonsense syllables or a word that sounds cool but makes no sense in he context like stegosaurus.

  69. Student*

    If attempts to bring your boss to reason fail, then try this:

    Hold a competition to see who can get the highest score without giving the game away to the boss. When reason fails, mockery and defiance can undercut this enough to make her stop doing it. Or, at least, your casual “um” folks will feel better about their public shaming if there are people gunning for the “um” record who make them look good in comparison. It won’t make you friends with this boss, but it seems deeply unlikely that she’ll fire you over it.

  70. Imaginary Number*

    I’m in Toastmasters and “ah counting” is a thing. It actually does help public speaking and learning how to not try to fill in pauses. That being said, Toastmasters is voluntary public speaking vs. being forced to do it by your boss.

  71. Snorks*

    Hi, my name is Snorks and i work in the Teapot Department. We make Teapots.
    (Insert 4 minutes 50 seconds of silence)

  72. Printer's Devil*

    I ran across something similar in high school improv. Please note- *high school*. (Also, we had all volunteered to join improv.) We only had two minutes, though. I think. I rather enjoyed the challenge.

    THAT BEING SAID. You’re all adults. You shouldn’t be forced into what becomes a public shaming session. That is not cool. If it’s not conducive to your business, or to you and your colleagues’ continued healthy existence, it shouldn’t be required.

  73. Oscar Madisoy*

    Former NYC mayor Ed Koch’s speech was filled with ums, uhs, and similar verbal pauses. It seemed like every other, uh, word, um, had, uh, an um or, uh, an uh in, um, between.

  74. Not So NewReader*

    How long does she plan to run this program?
    How will she know when people have reached where she wants them to be?
    What is her goal in doing this, how does this relate to the jobs people have?
    What will happen if people don’t improve?

    Put me in front of people and tell me you are going to go over my speech afterward and I will probably make every mistake in the book. That level of scrutiny wears me right down. Let me just say what I need to say and let me be done with it. People understood what I just said, which is the whole point of communication, to share ideas. I would be tempted to ask her if people are having problems communicating their ideas. If so, removing the er’s and um’s is not going to improve understanding that much. While their sentences may be clutter-free, the idea still has not been communicated.

  75. Oscar Madisoy*

    One of my pet peeves is when Judge Judy berates a litigant for beginning a sentence with “um.”

    “Um is not an answer!”, she’ll yell.

    If I ever find myself on her show– er, I mean, in her courtroom – and I find myself in that situation, I hope I have enough sense to respond thusly: “I’m sorry, Your Honor. I’ve seen your show enough times to know that you, on your worst day, are a hundred times better than I am on my best day. Since you are so much superior to me, I would respectfully hope that you would be compassionate enough to understand that my vocabulary isn’t as perfect as yours, instead of berating me for it.”

  76. MW*

    Was there ever an update from the letterwriter whose boss wanted to life-coach their whole company?

  77. NaoNao*

    Link in name:
    I wrote a blistering article in defense of “like” after receiving an example of a columnists’ work (in his romantic pursuit of me, which not only failed, but inspired me to give my rebuttal as a Toastmaster’s speech that won awards) where he complained about (in short) “lazy language use” by “the yoots”.
    I for one am tired of the sexist, classist, and agist ‘dislike’ of like!

  78. The Bimmer Guy*

    Yeah, they have an “Ah” counter in the Toastmasters organization. But the difference is that you opt into Toastmasters; it’s not done at your normal job. I think this a terrible idea.

  79. Vicki*

    I am a teacher (well, I’ve been subbing) and I have no desire nor interest in training the students in anything but the current subject (which in my case is usually math). It drives me nuts when I hear their regular teachers policing their vocabulary. The place for that is in English class, on a vocab quiz. (OK, if every word out of a student’s mouth is either an expletive or an “um”, a gentle conversation might be helpful) but otherwise, in work or in school, it’s important to focus on Why We Are There.

  80. Ian Mac Eochagáin*

    Did this boss go to the Joseph V. Stalin School of Management? I suppose “pep rally” means more for Americans, given the sport connotations, but I just read it and think “show trial”. The fact that several of those forced into it call it The Shaming says it all.

  81. David Frick, PhD*

    I agree that this manager is acting inappropriately, but the ability to eliminate verbal pauses is extremely important in formal speech. The distinction between informal and formal speech is critical.

    In informal speech, verbal pauses serve a purpose. Humans have the ability to tolerate around three seconds of silence before feeling the urge to jump into and take over a conversation. This tolerance varies from person to person, but we all know the discomfort of waiting for a speaker to …………….. continue the conversation. The verbal pause is a mechanism to say, “Stop! I am not finished speaking, do not take over my conversation!” In informal conversations, our American culture does not punish you for using verbal pauses, unless you take it to the extreme.

    In formal conversations, the rules are different. Verbal pauses are interpreted as insincerity, dishonesty, stupidity, or ignorance. This may not be accurate or fair, but it is reality. Yes, President Obama’s non-teleprompter-supported speeches were replete with verbal pauses. His impromptu speaking ability did not serve him well. [insert lawyer joke here] Yes, I am also suspicious of any legal argument replete with verbal pauses.

    Improving your formal speaking ability includes reducing or eliminating your verbal pauses. It is a skill that can be practiced. For example, Toastmasters International encourages tracking verbal pauses as a feedback mechanism. You cannot eliminate bad habit of which you are not aware. The difference is, a Toastmasters meeting is a low-stress, encouraging environment. Members see the feedback as constructive, not accusatory. I routinely give 45 minute lectures without a single verbal pause, but it takes time and practice. I encourage you to make the effort.

    1. ThatAspie*

      Some of us have stutters, though, and, yes, verbal pauses can be a manifestaion of a stutter. This coming from a woman with a slight stutter that sometimes makes me say, “uh,” “um,” “ah,” and “er.”

  82. Willow Sunstar*

    This is a Toastmasters thing. In Toastmasters clubs, one of the positions is the ah counter. At the end of the meeting, the ah counter gives a report on how many crutch words were used. In some clubs, an award goes to the person with the most crutch words. The idea is that filler words take away from your speech and it makes people use them less.

    However, to do this in a non-Toastmasters meeting without consent is ridiculous. It would have made me never want to speak in public.

    I was an area director last year and just finished my Silver Leader award.

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