Espresso 22 – Nothing Words

Nothing Words


Every parent knows that our children keep us in check, mirroring our best (and worst) behaviors. Luckily, my 4-year-old daughter has inherited my love of a story, and my dedication to delivery.At dinner, I watch her, my proud heart swelling, as she launches into a breathless recitation of the day’s events. And then, like a cacophony in my ears, it’s unleashed:”And then, like, Erin and I jumped on her bed. Cuz, like, her mom said it was, like, okay.” Oh.Her arms flail to provide emphasis. “We had, like, so much fun! And then, I was like, so tired.” My ears burn and I can’t hear anything but “like.””Blah blah blah blah, LIKE, blah! LIKE, blah blah.”And so it is revealed. People are right. The word “like” is, like, annoying.I never knew.

So what was the world like (pardon me) before everyone said, “like?”

The other day, I was waiting for a drink in my local university town smoothie shop. I was joined by a mom and her college-age daughter. The mom, apparently worried about her daughter’s class load, has solicited help from an accommodating grad student who was innocently waiting for her fruity blend.”Are you sure she can handle these classes?” the mom asks as she thrusts her daughter’s freshman schedule into the grad student’s hands. “It seems like too much! Three classes in one day?!”The grad student was very patient with the woman, and as they went back and forth, the daughter, meanwhile, talked loudly on her cellphone (of course) telling a friend about her schedule and ignoring her mother completely.”I have, like, three classes on Monday and, like, NO classes on Thursday.“But then, like, I have three classes on Friday. I so totally, like, have a sucky schedule.”Amid the whirring of the smoothie blenders I hear my future.Loudly again, into her phone, “Like, I know!” At that moment I vow to speak slowly and banish “like” from my vocabulary forever. I can’t possibly continue to sound like this girl. It’s ridiculous.

And in so doing, I will save my daughter from this decidedly horrible fate. It stops here.


Certain words, and some noises, that add nothing to what we’re trying to get across sometimes creep into our conversation. They merely clutter up what we’re saying, meaning that they also clutter up what our listener is hearing. These “nothing words” are the verbal equivalent of those annoying little Styrofoam peanuts that come in packing boxes: just so much filler.

Then why do people use these words? Because they are crutches—oral crutches. They are handy to lean on when you’re stalling, but if you get dependent on them, your conversation will always limp along.

The unchallenged leader in this category of nothing words is “you know.” A friend of mine in Washington, D.C., used to work with a professional consultant who seemed unable to use three words without two of them being “you know.” My friend’s curiosity surfaced at a meeting with the consultant. Knowing of his addiction to the phrase, my friend decided to count the number of times the consultant said “you know” during their meeting.

The meeting lasted twenty minutes. The consultant, by actual count, said “you know” 91 times! For the mathematically curious, I’ve figured it out—that’s four and a half times a minute.

It’s funny when you think about it that way, but consider the serious side. This consultant, whose livelihood depends on communicating effectively with people, had let this verbal tic become so obtrusive that people were paying more attention to his “you-knows” than to what he said in between them. How long would it be before he started losing work because of his problem?

The popularity of “you know” is being challenged seriously these days by “basically,” as in “Well, basically.” “Basically” often appears in conversation, usually as a throw-in word that people use for no reason except force of habit.

I heard a police officer explain that the criminal got into the house because the door was left “basically open.” Isn’t that like being “basically pregnant”? Either that door was open or it wasn’t. There’s no “basically” about it.

Hopefully” came on the scene in a big way in the 1970s. Suddenly nobody could say anything about what might happen in the future without saying “hopefully.” But in almost every case, people misuse the word. What they really mean to say is “I hope,” but that’s not what “hopefully” means.

When you say, “Hopefully the meeting will be held Thursday,” you’re really saying the meeting will be held Thursday in an atmosphere of hope; what you meant to say was, “I hope the meeting will be held Thursday.”

Whatever” is another empty word that usually adds nothing to what you’re saying, as in “When you called, I was out shopping or whatever,” “I thought it would be nice this weekend if we went to the beach or whatever,” and “I have to finish these letters or whatever.

Whatever you’re talking about, try to leave all these nothing words out of your conversation.

Dad: Do you use annoying fillers in your speech—”Well,” “Um,” “Uh,” “You know,” “You understand,” “Sort of”? Perhaps you overuse certain words and phrases? Perhaps you speak too softly or too loudly, too slowly or too fast, or you jumble your words together as you race along to express your point, leaving your listeners unsure of what you said and without a moment to get a word in edgewise to ask questions about it.

How do you train yourself out of these habits? As with any habit, it takes discipline. Try these three techniques.

1) First, listen to yourself. Simply paying attention to the words coming out of your mouth as you speak can be very effective. You’ll realize just how many stops, starts, and backtracks you make and how “uh” is clogging up your talk. That in itself can help you clean up your speech.

2) Second, think ahead about what you’re going to say. I know it sounds obvious, but often the reason you’re resorting to this filler is that you got into the middle of a sentence and couldn’t figure out how you were going to end it. I’m not saying you should script an entire speech in your head before you open your mouth. But you can actually plan out your second sentence in your mind as you’re saying the first one, and so on. If that sounds hard, try it; you’ll see it really isn’t. The brain has a great capacity for letting us do two things at once.

3) Third, enlist a “speech monitor” to listen to your conversations and zap you when you use a nothing word or a cliché. This can be surprisingly effective. Ask your spouse, a good friend, or perhaps a co-worker to stop you short (they can say “Stop!” or “Zap!”) every time you use the word or phrase. Your monitor should be someone who’s with you for at least a couple of hours a day. Sound a little annoying? That’s the idea. I guarantee that after a few days of this “negative reinforcement,” you will find yourself suppressing the target word.

By the way, work only on one word or phrase at a time. If you have more than one crutch to get rid of, take them one by one, or you’ll be getting zapped so often that your monitor’s life might be in danger.

Additional tips from Dad:

—If you speak too fast, too much or too long, strive to go slower by thinking and praying more and speaking less.

—If you speak too slowly, strive to go a little faster by being more prepared with what you want to say.

—If you’re not sure how you’re doing, but you think you may have a problem along any of these lines, stop occasionally and ask your listeners if they can hear you okay, if you’re loud enough, clear enough, concise enough, speaking slowly enough, or whatever you suspect the difficulty may be.

—Sometimes jotting yourself a note or two can help you to clarify your thoughts before speaking them in a meeting setting.

—If your mind is full of many thoughts, all of which are jostling about, eager to rush out of your mouth, ask the Lord which needs to go first and which can wait till later; and if you are afraid you will forget them, write them down.

Sam Smith
Sam Smith is an independent Missionary, that has spent 7 years of his life in Africa, trying to spread Jesus' message of love in any way possible. He has been involved with non profit companies distributing educational material, youth counseling, IT education and humanitarian aid work in medical camps. He believes in Jesus in the simple way that the Bible speaks about, without going so far as to "belong" to a denomination, but just wants to do his best with likeminded people to make the world a better place.