Men Say 'Uh' and Women Say 'Um'

Our word-fumbles offer subtle clues about our personalities and intentions.
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Um, guys. I have some information to share with you, and fair warning, it's, uh, going to make you scrutinize your speech for several days. 

You know when you're searching for a word, or trying to say something more nicely than you actually mean it, or trying to make up your mind after you've already started speaking? Whether you reach for an "um" or an "uh" in those situations might depend on whether you're male or female.

Our verbal pauses actually speak volumes: "Like," as eighth-grade English teachers will tell you, makes the speaker sound young or ditzy; "sort of" smacks of uncertainty. But according to the linguist Mark Liberman, who works at the University of Pennsylvania and blogs at Language Log, even a difference as subtle as the one between "um" and "uh" provides clues about the speaker's gender, language skills, and even life experience.

For his analyses, Liberman has been parsing 14,000 transcribed phone conversations, which together comprise more than 26 millions words and involve about 12,000 speakers from all over the U.S.

Back in 2005, he found that usage of "uh" increases with age, but at every age, men say it more than women do. Meanwhile, usage of "um" decreases with age, but female speakers said it more than male ones at each stage in life:


Usage of 'Uh' and 'Um' Among Men and Women

Frequency of uh/um usage, by age, indexed to the frequency of the usage of "the." (Mark Liberman)

Overall, he found that women say "um" 22 percent more than men do, but men say "uh" more than twice as often as women do. A 2011 study by Eric Acton yielded similar results.

When the two genders are speaking to each other, they try to meet in the middle: "Males use uh about 14 percent less often when talking with a female rather than a male, and females use uh about about 20 percent more often when talking with a male rather than a female," Liberman writes. (There's not nearly as much accommodation with "um.")

What Liberman found, essentially, was that young men speak like old women: "The rate of 'um' usage for the younger men is almost the same as the rate of 'um' usage for the older women." 

It's hard to determine what, exactly, this says about how the two genders think about themselves—or their words. One 2001 paper found that men use all kinds of "language fillers" more frequently than women do. But a study published in June found that while men and women say either "um" or "uh" roughly equal amounts, women say "you know," "like," and "I mean" more often. That study suggested that people who use these types of "discourse markers" are more empathetic and conscientious—two traits women are often thought to be socialized to exhibit.

Liberman also posits that "um" and "uh" portray language fluency and intelligence differently. "People tend to use UM when they're trying to decide what to say, and UH when they're trying to decide how to say it," he told me in an email. "As people get older, they have less trouble deciding what to say (because they know more stuff), and more trouble deciding how to say it (because they know more words and fixed phrases, and so have a harder time making a choice). As a result, older people use fewer UMs and more UHs."

Thus, one theory is that perhaps, "At any given (adult) age, men are more linguistically experienced than women, and so use UM and UH as if they were older," he says. "OR MAYBE: Women are more communicatively circumspect than men, and therefore more likely to pause before deciding what to say; but women are more linguistically fluent than men, and therefore less likely to pause while deciding what words to use."

A 2000 study found that people use "um" to signal long pauses and "uh" to signal short ones, so perhaps women just intend to hint at a major delay. Women also use "assenting murmurs" more frequently in conversation—uh-huhs and mm-hmms—and they laugh 60 percent more than men do. Maybe the "ums," with their long mmm, their careful consideration, and their prudence, are simply an extension of women's overall linguistic cordiality. In an analysis of the most-commonly used words and sounds in male and female conversations, Liberman found that the most distinctive one for women was "[laughter]" and the one for men was "uh." The words "gosh" and "goodness" made an appearance on the female list, while "shit" popped up on the male one.

This, Liberman notes, meshes with a 2013 study that analyzed women's and men's Facebook posts and found that men are most distinguished by their use of "fuck," "wishes," and "xbox," while women stood out for words like "shopping," "excited," and "<3."


Most Strongly Correlated Facebook Words, by Gender

Words correlated most strongly with the postings of women (top) and men on Facebook. (PLoS)

Facebook isn't a one-to-one representation of real speech, of course, but it's telling that even when they're being their best selves, men seem to be a lot less concerned with appearing happy, congenial, or "blessed."

Women also tend to be linguistic pioneers, Liberman says, ushering in massive societal word-choice shifts long before the men start to catch on. So it could be that "um" is overtaking "uh" among everyone, and women just happen to be leading the way.

It's a little shocking how reminiscent some of these verbal quirks are of Sheryl Sandberg's admonishments to female leaders that they should smile more and act generally more communal than their male counterparts.

There's probably no overcoming these little rhetorical flags for the long-term. (Going back to the eighth-grade teacher, remember how her threats to deduct points for every "like" in a class presentation only made you say it more?)

Still, I think it might be fun to try to speak like a man for a day. By which I mean, "Uh, I wish I could go play my fucking xbox."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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