People & Human Resources

I mean, you know, Gen Y are like umm… really paying attention

Kirsten Robb /

A recent US study has found the use of ‘filler’ words, including Gen Y’s favourites ‘like’, ‘you know’ and ‘I mean’, actually indicate the speaker is paying attention and not, in fact, an airhead.

With the subject of how to manage Gen Y workers recently brought to the fore in the business world, the study suggests employers may be getting the wrong impression from Millennial’s everyday speech habits.

The academic paper, titled ‘Um . . . Who Like Says You Know’ and published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, argues people who use a lot of ‘filler speech’ or ‘discourse markers’ to fill conversational pauses actually tend to be more conscientious.

“The possible explanation for this association is that conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings,” the study’s authors wrote.

“When having conversations with listeners, conscientious people use discourse markers, such as ‘I mean’ and ‘you know,’ to imply their desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients,” they said.

“Thus it is expected that the use of discourse markers may be used to measure the degree to which people have thoughts to express.”

The authors analysed five filler words (‘I mean’, ‘you know’, ‘like’, ‘uh’, ‘um’) from transcripts recorded by a device called the Electronically Activated Recorder, which sampled participants’ language use in daily conversations over several days.

Gen George, chief executive at OneShift and the winner of this year’s Hot 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs list, told SmartCompany the use of filler words was reflective of the speed of Gen Y’s culture.

“Previously these words were related to ditzy, hair-flicking airheads,” says George. “But [this study] shows a sign of changing times. Silence is not second nature anymore.”

“Young people are so used to instant response and having answers at their fingertips,” says George. “If there’s no response, we think, oh my god they’re not saying anything!”

“It’s saying ‘hey, I’m processing.’ [The use of fillers] is just like a loading bar,” says George.

George says the use of fillers is show of comfort and is found across different cultures, even older generations.

“Older generations could think it’s a generational thing, they could say it sounds silly, but you’ll catch older generations doing it themselves,” says George.

So next time a Gen Y job interview is filled with these fillers, will employers just think, umm… you know, like, whatever?

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Kirsten Robb

Kirsten Robb is a former journalist at SmartCompany. Previously, she worked at News Corp as a property reporter for Leader Newspapers and the Herald Sun, and holds a Masters of Journalism at Melbourne University.

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