November 7, 2011

Repeater or deleter: Which one are you?

One of my clients has a concern about finishing sentences. Specifically, she feels that she gets part of the way through an idea and doesn't know how to finish it, either because she's picked the wrong words or can't think of what to say next. She gets tongue-tied at this point. She's very self-conscious about this behavior.

This reminded me of a section of Michael Erard's book, "Um... Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean," where he talks about two main group of disfluent speakers: "sentence changers" and the "uh-ers," terms coined by psychologist George Mahl. Sentence changers charge through their sentences, changing, fixing and restarting sentences as needed to get their point across. Sentence changers tend to be more confident speakers and less worried about making mistakes than the Uh-ers, who prefer to more carefully plan and craft their sentences, often using "um" and "uh" while restructuring the sentence in order to avoid making mistakes. Another researcher in the book, Liz Shriberg, calls these two types of disfluent speakers "repeaters" and "deleters."

Erard says, "...Each person consistently blunders in a way that's unique to him or her."

For example, in a study of college students, recordings showed that "...each student tended to say the same number of 'uhs' and 'ums.' If their pause fillers were counted at Time 1 and then again four weeks later, the students would be blundering at roughly the same rate. There were only two other features of their speech that were more stable than this: their swearing and the use of filler words ('well,' 'like,' 'so'). In casual listening we can often hear speakers' distinctive speech patterns when their disfluencies become excessive...."

According to Erard, each of us has our own speech patterns and disfluencies (breaks, blunders, false starts, fillers, repetitions and other interruptions of the flow of speech), but most of them are universal. That is, each of us is not unique in making mistakes, only in our own personal patterns of mistakes.

I suggested to my client that, if she's truly uncomfortable with her style of correcting a sentence (in her case, getting tongue-tied stops the sentence in its tracks), that she consciously commit to finishing the sentence in any way she can. Perhaps she forges ahead, repairing as she goes and letting go of the need to get everything right. Or perhaps she slows down and pauses while she restructures, more carefully crafting her words. But whichever method she prefers, she needs to know that it's perfectly normal to rework sentences while uttering them and that getting stuck in the middle is a universal trait.

I'm pretty sure I'm a sentence changer; I like to plow through my sentences, aiming for flow rather than perfection. But I'll have to watch some video to confirm.

How about you? Are you a sentence changer or uh-er? You may not know unless you record yourself. It's an interesting bit of detective work!

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