Verbal Blunders and their Impact on Perception

By Jean Marie Johnson

If you are reading this newsletter, you are likely to be quite familiar with the distinction between MAGIC® and Tragic words and phrases. But just to ensure that we are all working from the same definitions…

  • MAGIC language includes wording that is personal, specific or empathic. It has the power to draw a person closer to you.
  • Tragic language includes wording that is negative, discouraging, vague, jargon or slang. It has the negative effect of distancing you from another person.

Language Consternation

Most of us have an ongoing "opportunity" to eradicate tragic language, to replace it with MAGIC, and thereby make a better impression on others. But the concern about language and perception is even broader. Clients frequently ask us about any number of verbal blunders, beginning, frequently, with the wee sound of "um." So let's start there.

"Um," There's More

Haven't you filled in a pause with "um" or "uh"? Or jumbled your words from time to time, saying something that comes out all wrong, even a bit "saucy," shall we say? If so, you are far from alone. In fact, Michael Erard, the author of the book, Um...Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean, found that there are two main categories of spoken blunders:

  • Speech disfluencies: These are speech interruptions. They include pause fillers such as the notorious "uh" and "um," silent pauses, repeated words, "repairs," and even prolonged vowels or syllables. In other words, just about anything that disrupts verbal flow.
  •  Slips of the tongue: These include 27 different types of speech errors which amount to saying something we didn't intend to say. Consider: "it's a meal mystery" when you intended to say "it's a real mystery."
However you dice and slice, or, um, slice and dice them, they are all verbal blunders that are both common and frequent. Researchers found that we regularly make them—some say as often as one in every 10 words we speak; others put the number at one per 1,000. Included in that figure are the seven to 22 slips of the tongue that the average English speaker makes each day. And, blunders occur in every language. Apparently, it's universal and only human to make them! And that brings us back to "um."

The MAGIC Side of "Um"?

There are many amongst us who hold a less than positive view of folks who frequently use the "um" utterance. But there is good reason to reconsider that view. Dr. Erard contends that "ums" and "uhs" often make sense and frequently serve a purpose. That's because they can be a means of interacting with the listener in conversational speech. For example, an "um" or an "uh" :

  • can mark a shift in conversation, as in: "Now, uh, have you considered the tax implications of that investment, Mr. Deevers?"
  • can focus the listener's attention on what's coming next (it's like filling in the pregnant pause) "So, then I let it out, the whole story, and um…it was unbelievable!"
  • can signal that the speaker is actively thinking and considering his response
So, surprise, surprise: it's all about context. But your concern about how pause fillers are perceived makes sense. We have often heard that they are to be avoided. And we may have been told that if we use them, we might appear nervous, uncertain, or even something worse. Well, they may not be as distracting or damaging as we think. According to Dr. Erard:  "Because they operate below the level of consciousness, they are unobtrusive and may facilitate interaction between speakers and listeners—and do not, as is most commonly thought, impede communication."

Keep in mind that he is referring to the use of pause fillers in conversational speech, where there is typically a give and take of listening and speaking. Viewed in this light, it is less surprising to consider that in a study of 1,900 phone calls which included 80,000 words, a full 25 percent were actually "non-words," such as "um," "uh," and "uh-huh." Pause fillers, yes. But perhaps effective ways of interacting with the listener as well.

The "Tragic" Um

What deserves further study is the finding that "ums" and "uhs" are used more often in telephone conversations than face to face. And, studies show that women and younger people, as well as those who gesture, use these fillers less often.
"Ums" and "uhs" are also more frequent when a person is multi-tasking or otherwise distracted. This distraction may be evident to the listener and may negatively impact her perception of the speaker. After all, when we are not focused, not actively listening, our thought process is impacted and this in turn can affect the words we use, our tone, and even our pace.

How do your "ums" and "uhs" measure up? Are they a purposeful way to engage with your listener, or a reflection of your own distraction? If you are like most of us, probably a combination of the two.

Blends, Malaphors, and More!

Remember those 27 types of verbal slips referred to earlier? While we don't have space for all of them, here's a small sampling. See how many you recognize, from others' conversations or even perhaps, your own. Consider the impact these slips might have on others' perception of you and their confidence in your contributions.

Blend: when two words or phrases are pulled from memory and fused into one, as in: "clorrect" as a fusion of "clear" and "correct."

Malaphor: when two idiomatic expressions are blended together, as in: "Don't burn your boats" when you mean to say: "Don't burn your bridges."

Spoonerism: a term coined for the Rev. William Archibald Spooner of Oxford University, who made outlandish verbal mistakes in the 19th century. The term refers to an exchange of sounds between words to produce new words, as in: "jawfully loined." Or, exchanges that result in actual, unintended words, as in:  "turned boast" for breakfast. Or, even a reversal of words, as in: "put the buggy in the baby."

Malapropism: an inadvertent substitution of one word for another because they either sound alike, or are related in meaning, as in: "His example was relative to the story," when you mean to say: "His example was relevant to the story."

And finally, of course, there is the infamous "Freudian Slip," named after pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Freud, as we know, assumed that everything meant something that came straight from a person's unconscious mind. Thus, a Freudian Slip reflected an unconscious desire. While that assertion remains up for debate, today we simply refer to any lapse that is "obscene or salacious" as a Freudian Slip.

Be Mindful of Your Verbal Slips

To coin yet another phrase, "it's a good thing" to be mindful of how your use of language influences how you are perceived. Record a few of your conversations, then listen for how your pause fillers show up…and if they are of the MAGIC or tragic variety.

The more aware you are of your personal repertoire of verbal blunders, the less likely you are to make them.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.