Hmm vs. Mmm vs. Mhmm

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When texting or using instant messaging, I often write “mmm” as shorthand for a sound of agreement (imagine me nodding, sagely, thinking “yes,” “totally,” “I’m on your wavelength”).

To my horror, a colleague recently told me that she’s been interpreting my “mmms” as ominous. While I thought I was being supportive (mmm implying “mhmm”), she thought I’d felt unsure (mmm implying “hmm”) because of a friend she has who used “mmm” this way a lot. It made me wonder, how many other people are misinterpreting my gestures of approval? And how many displays of caution have I brazenly pushed through, thinking the other person was on board?

To me this is an interesting example of the deeply personal relationship we all have with language.

Our words are supposed to be these universal communication symbols. Yet how we interpret language is also heavily influenced by individual experiences, which in turn feed back into the meaning of the symbol or word over time. Language is constantly redefined and re-appropriated by its users, but what determines the dominant interpretation, and how does one meaning win on a larger scale?

Obviously, these observations apply across all forms of language. But I find them most intriguing—and evident—when it comes to the language we use on the Internet; the vocabulary that starts to slip naturally from our fingertips and thumbs, laced with meanings that may be specific to us. Take “lol,” and other forms of laughing on the internet, for example. (Apparently, “huh” is one of the closest things we have to a universal word; though I wonder whether this applies to the way we express it online.)

Should we be thinking more each other’s text-based “voice” or “accent,” at work or in our friendships? Perhaps my confusions with “mmm” proves that text-based communication is inherently laced with more ambiguity than face-to-face communication. But maybe these little quirks and misunderstandings preserve some of the same nuance and individuality that many claim we’re losing when we turn to our devices to connect.