One of the big traffic signals that manages that is these hesitation markers like “um” and “uh,” because they can be used as early as you like. Of course, they don’t have any content, they don’t tell you anything about what I’m about to say, but they do say, “Wait please, because I know time’s ticking and I don’t want to leave silence but I’m not ready to produce what I want to say.”
There’s another important reason for delay, and that is because you are trying to buffer what we call a “dis-preferred response.” A clear example would be: I say “How about we go and grab coffee later?” and you’re not free. If you’re free and you say, “Yeah, sure, sounds good,” that response will tend to come out very fast. But if you say “Ah, actually no, I’m not really free this afternoon, sorry,” that kind of response is definitely going to come out later. It may have nothing to do with a processing problem as such, but it’s putting a buffer there because you’re aware saying “No” is not the thing the questioner was going for. We tend to deliver those dis-preferred responses a bit later. If you say “no” very quickly, that often comes across as blunt or abrupt or rude.
The way we play with those little delays, others are very sensitive to what that means. A full second is about the limit of our tolerance for silence. Then we will either assume the other person’s not going to respond at all, and we just keep speaking, or we might pursue a response.
Beck: Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but one of the things that they tell you to do if you’re doing an interview is to just wait. If they’re not responding, just sit there quietly, because people get uncomfortable and then they just keep talking.
Enfield: Exactly. The interesting thing about it is you as an interviewer have to suppress quite a strong tendency to jump into that space. It’s a skill you’ve got to learn to do. I think people naturally don’t feel comfortable with that silence. Once you’ve got that one second going by, somebody’s got to do something. Unless it’s a situation where you’re with your loved ones in your house or you’re on a long car drive or something like that. Obviously, we can lapse into silence and that’s not a problem, but if we’re in the middle of a to-and-fro conversation, we’re generally not going to let that happen.
Beck: So I’m going to transcribe this Q&A later, and I’m going to edit all of those filler words like “um” and “uh” and “well” out of this interview, as I always do. But you write that these words are actually extremely important to conversation. What am I going to lose by cutting all of that out of this transcript?
Enfield: I think it’s the right thing to do, to edit it out when you write things down. You’re not going to lose anything too significant, and the reason is you’ve changed the context completely in which people are going to consume those words. At the moment, the words I’m producing are being interpreted by you in real time. Things never come out perfectly, and we have to edit on the fly. That’s what these words do. What they’re doing is telling you, “No, that word is not what I meant, I’ve doubled back and I’m now going to replace that word with this word.” Or, “Wait a second, I’m about to get the word I’m looking for.” But as soon as you transcribe those, people are not consuming the words at the same time and place as I’ve created them. Those “ums” and “uhs” just become superfluous.