Did you like, get scolded as a teen for like, using “like” too much? These filler words probably look really awkward in writing, and can come across as downright unprofessional. But are they really an issue in spoken dialogue? The answer to this question is uh… complicated.

When you are in normal conversation with friends and family, you probably are not paying the same care and attention to the way you speak as you would be in a business setting. I have edited a number of podcasts and found that the average speaking rate is 150 words per minute. This varies by a person’s background and upbringing, and is affected by the filler words they use. I have found that people who speak more slowly tend to use fewer filler words, which may correlate to the value their family placed upon rhetoric vs. pragmatism.

According to this study from University of Southern California, filler words are actually full of meaning, and are used all over the world in many languages. You’ve heard of the concept of “reading between the lines”, right? Well, in everyday speech, there are no lines, and so you can just read between the “um’s” and gauge the non-linguistic (outside of spoken content) and paralinguistic (surrounding spoken content) items of tonality, body language, and fillers. These are a natural part of conversation.

Now don’t get me wrong: overusing these fillers in the wrong context can be downright unprofessional. You don’t want to like, keep sounding like a young teenage girl when you’re trying to present your quarterly profits to the board. But nor do you want to sound robotic when having a casual conversation with your girlfriend/boyfriend.

Knowing how to vary your dialect according to context is an invaluable skill. If the people you are talking to use filler words- use them! If the people you are talking to speak slowly in a refined New England vernacular, don’t use them! The best rule of thumb is to speak the language of the people you do business with.