Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 20;   May 15, 2013: Embolalia and Stuff Like That: I

Embolalia and Stuff Like That: I

by

When we address others, we sometimes use filler — so-called automatic speech or embolalia — without thinking. Examples are "uh," "um," and "er," but there are more complex forms, too. Embolalia are usually harmless, if mildly annoying to some. But sometimes they can be damaging.
Fugu Rubripes, the Fugu fish

Fugu Rubripes, the Fugu fish. The genome of the Fugu contains almost the same genes and other coding that the human genome contains, but it is far more compact — about one-eight the size. The Fugu's genome contains much less of the so-called "non-coding" DNA — DNA that does not encode protein sequences. This makes the genes easier to find, and it is therefore convenient for scientific study. Non-coding DNA has been called "junk DNA" because it was at first thought not to have a genetic purpose. That view is changing. In the human genome, some now conjecture that up to 80% of DNA does serve some biochemical purpose, though that number is controversial.

In human communication, many regard embolalia the way genomics scientists once regarded non-coding DNA — useless or worse. Certainly embolalia do not carry much of the central meaning of the communication. And just as certainly, extreme overuse of embolalia is useless or worse, relative to the communication's purpose. But embolalia do carry meaning of some kind. They sometimes serve social purposes — providing means of achieving or expressing social connections of many kinds, including accessibility, distance, superiority, or affection.

Photo courtesy Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Embolalia are those utterances we produce that are little more than filler, if they are any more at all. Sometimes, when they do carry meaning, the function they serve is better accomplished in more straightforward and economical ways. At other times, they can damage the relationship between the addressor and the addressees, or worse, they can harm the very image of the addressor. What are embolalia, and why do we produce them?

In their simplest forms, embolalia are monosyllabic non-words. They fill spaces. They mark time while we gather our thoughts or while we plan what we're about to say. In English, examples are "uh," "um," "er," and "eh." Some people use embolalia habitually, even though they don't need time to plan their next words. "Like" is one example often used this way.

When we hear others using embolalia, we make meaning of their use. For the simplest forms, we sometimes conclude that the addressor is "unprofessional," or lacks confidence or polish, or that the addressor is nervous or under stress. This is one reason why those who aspire to be taken seriously often try mightily — sometimes too mightily — to rid their speech of these forms.

With regard to these simplest embolalia, conclusions about professionalism or polish can be correct, but there are other possibilities. For example, some users of "uh," "um," and "er" use them consciously, by choice, to convey an impression of softness, tact, or accessibility. They want to avoid appearing too certain of themselves, or too commanding or domineering. They want to seem to be considering their words carefully, as if for the first time, when they actually know very well what they're planning to say. People who employ this deceptive strategy might also use more complex embolalia, but using "uh," "um," and "er" in this way — and doing it effectively — requires true theatrical skill.

Some more complex Some users of "uh," "um," and "er"
use them consciously, by choice,
to convey an impression of
softness, tact, or accessibility
embolalia also provide opportunities for softening impressions. Examples: "you know," "You know what?," "kind of," "kinda," "sort of," "sorta," "it seems to me that," "it seems like," "the thing is," "I mean," "stuff like that," and "things like that." These forms, like all embolalia, do provide extra time for the addressor to plan ahead, but they can also be disarming or softening, or contribute to a more familiar or humble tone if the addressor seeks such a tone.

Sadly for some users of embolalia, familiarity or humility aren't always desirable results. Addressors who seek credibility, who want to persuade the addressees, or who want the respect of addressees, would do well to avoid these forms in particular.

We'll continue our exploration of embolalia next time, when we look at some of the most complex forms.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Embolalia and Stuff Like That: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenrOPqvHJDoFkLpKelner@ChacrYlMNnjNeRdCGrRdoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Why phones are noisyThe True Costs of Cubicles
Although cubicles do provide facility cost savings compared with walled offices, they do so at the price of product development delays and increased product development costs. Decisions of facilities planners can have dramatic project schedule impact.
A Mastodon skeletonLearn from the Mastodon
Not long ago, Mastodons roamed North America in large numbers. Cousins to the elephant, they thrived in the cool, sub-glacial climate. But the climate warmed, and human hunters arrived. The Mastodon couldn't adapt, and now it's extinct. Change is now coming to your profession. Can you adapt?
Wildflowers in the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National ForestsRenewal
Renewal is a time to step out of your usual routine and re-energize. We find renewal in weekends, vacations, days off, even in a special evening or hour in the midst of our usual pattern. Renewal provides perspective. It's a climb to the mountaintop to see if we're heading in the right direction.
Chair clusterGive It Your All
If you have the time and resources to read this, you probably have a pretty good situation, or you have what it takes to be looking for one. In many ways, you're one of the fortunate few. Are you making the most of the wonderful things you have? Are you giving it your all?
Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., (right) bids farewell to Gen. Bernard Montgomery (left) at the Palermo airportTactics for Asking for Volunteers: II
When we seek volunteers for specific, time-limited tasks, a common approach is just to ask the entire team at a meeting or teleconference. It's simple, but it carries risks. There are alternatives.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A human marionetteComing November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
Desperation at workAnd on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenffODmFrWozpvFaoWner@ChacXLIIUizFInQRgAgMoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy new blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.