Are These Common Speech Habits Bringing You Down?

How you say something matters as much as, like, what you say.

If you want to get your ideas across, then pay attention to certain controversial speech habits becoming increasingly more common. Mumbling or speaking too fast will clearly hamper your message, while others may or may not cause a problem, depending on whom you ask.

Below, we discuss six of the most common trends:

1. Vocal fry

Speakers who exhibit vocal fry drop their voices down to the lowest pitches, causing their vocal cords to flutter, resulting in a creaking sound.

Although the habit has been around for decades, no one knows exactly why people use it. Some call it a voice disorder, while others suggest that people, especially women, use it to sound assertive or sexy.

A recent study found that vocal fry makes people, especially young women, less likely to land a job. After listening to recordings of both men and women speaking with and without vocal fry, participants who reported making hiring judgments preferred normal voices 87% of the time.

But some linguists say the research was inaccurate and that vocal fry is common and generally harmless.

Although clearly auto-tuned, pop artist Kesha’s voice gives a solid example of vocal fry. Listen as her voice creaks as she sings.

2. Uptalking

Uptalking occurs when people raise their inflection at the end of declarative sentences as if they were questions.

The term was reportedly invented in 1993 by New York University journalism professor James Gorman, who wrote a humorous article about his students’ use of it.

Associated with the valley girl stereotype, uptalking is often seen as annoying and symbolic of a lack of intelligence or confidence.

But a recent study suggests a more complex conclusion. Sociologist Thomas Linneman of the College of William and Mary analysed 100 episodes of “Jeopardy” and found that all the contestants uptalked sometimes. He also noted higher-scoring women did it more, while the opposite was true for men. Linneman argues that the professional world penalizes women for coming off too confident, so they have learned to compensate by uptalking.

While still controversial today, uptalk became a national phenomenon in the mid-1990s. Below, it appears in a 1994 segment from news anchor Connie Chung:

3. Beginning sentences with “so”

So people are always starting sentences with “so” lately.

To some people, that’s a problem. Fast Company’s Hunter Thurman wrote that a speaker’s use of “so” indicates something rehearsed and dumbed-down. As a result, the addition alienates audiences. Also, the word does not have a clear grammatical function at the beginning of a sentence.

Some linguists, however, defend the habit. Galina Bolden, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University, told Business Insider that “so” at the start of a sentence often marks the beginning of a new topic that one of the parties wants to discuss, often called an “interactional agenda.”

“It communicates that the speaker is interested in or concerned about the recipient,” Bolden said. “It also invokes prior conversations between the speaker and the recipient, drawing on their relationship history.”

As we’ve noted before, Mark Zuckerberg demonstrates this habit all the time, as he does in his ALS ice bucket challenge:

4. Saying “um” and “uh”

Sounds like “um” and “uh,” also known as fillers, often appear in our conversations. Nearly every language includes them in different forms, hinting at some universal meaning. Unfortunately, they can make speakers seem ill prepared.

In his 1995 paper, “Does It Hurt To Say Um?” Nicholas Christenfeld surveyed listeners and determined that audiences not only notice the appearance of “ums” in speech but also that the sound negatively affects their opinions of the speaker.

People apparently didn’t start complaining about “um,” however, until the emergence of voice recording, as Mental Floss reports on Michael Erard’s book “Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. While ancient Greek and Latin transcripts do not include these breaks in speech, people most likely still used them.

Even so, many linguists believe these sounds serve purposes and even follow rules. For example, in a 2002 study, Herbert Clarke and Jean Fox Tree determined that speakers use “uh” and “um” to introduce minor and major delays, respectively, in speech, especially while explaining complex topics.

If these sounds tend to fill moments of thinking, logic would suggest careful preparation could eliminate them.

In this interview with Taylor Swift, splicing her “ums” together fills nearly three minutes of video.

5. Saying “like”

The frequent insertion of “like” into sentences where it doesn’t serve a clear purpose appears to have gained popularity.

Moon Unit Zappa highlighted the habit’s spread in Southern California with her 1982 hit “Valley Girl,” as did Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) in the 1995 movie “Clueless.” Overusing “like” is often considered ineloquent and immature, and consensus suggests avoiding it in professional situations like job interviews and presentations.

While many consider this type of “like” a filler word, linguists also note it can serve purposes, making it a discourse marker — a signal meant to help a listener understand the message.

Recent research has also shown that the controversial use of “like” doesn’t necessarily correlate with a lack of intelligence.

A 2014 study from the University of Texas, titled “Um … Who Like Says You Know, found that conscientious people — those who are thoughtful and more aware of their surroundings — more often use discourse markers, such as “like.” These additions imply the speakers’ desire to share and rephrase their opinions to recipients. The study also affirmed that young women most frequently say “like.”

As early as 1991, researchers began studying the purpose of “like” as a replacement for a qualified “say.” For example, “He was like, ‘no,'” implies the quoted speaker thought about saying no or implied a no without actually speaking one. That makes the sentence intrinsically different from, “He said, ‘no.'”

But when used to excess, arbitrary insertions of “like” clearly pose a problem, as Justin Bieber demonstrates:

6. Clearing your throat

Clearing the throat is a sign of uncertainty, nervousness, or annoyance, which is found even in chimpanzee populations.

It’s a bad idea for multiple reasons.

First of all, the action interrupts a speaker’s delivery and can irritate audiences.

Second, clearing your throat, theoretically meant to remove or loosen phlegm, actually just inflames the vocal cords and causes more phlegm. Repeated clearing can also cause permanent damage to the vocal cords, Dr. Brian Rotskoff at Clarity Allergy Center in Chicago told The Daily Mail.

Third, once someone starts clearing his or her throat, the more they feel they need to. “Your throat and vocal cords take repeated abuse with constant clearing,” Rotskoff said. “The resulting inflammation only reinforces the urge to clear, and the cycle continues.”

The popular animated show “Family Guy” poked fun at the trend. In a well-known skit, three men’s throat-clearing escalates into a full-blown screaming match.

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