Of all the things about Justin Trudeau that grate on non-Liberals, a big one is his “speech disfluency” — the habit of interlacing sentences with large numbers of “uhs” and “ums.”
“It’s how we tell when he’s gone off script,” one Conservative MP told the National Post.
An Ontario YouTuber isolated an 80-second segment of a press conference showing Trudeau saying “uh” 50 times. Another wag edited down a CTV interview with Trudeau until it was nothing but a solid 38 seconds of Trudeau saying nothing but filler words and false starts.
While “uhs” earn the deep scorn of effective speaking advocates, filler words or “hesitation tricks” of some kind are used almost uniformly by politicians, public figures and anybody else who is expected to think on the fly in front of a microphone. But is Trudeau’s speech disfluency really all that egregious? To find out, the National Post took a cursory glance at three off-the-cuff speeches by, and interviews with, the Prime Minister.
The segment analyzed was the English-language responses to reporter’s questions after both leaders had delivered prepared texts. Obama did the lion’s share of the talking, giving lengthy responses that lasted up to nine minutes in one case. Both leaders came out with comparable “uh” rates: Obama averaged seven and a half “uhs” per minute, and Trudeau clocked in at nine.
Interview on Edmonton’s Ryan Jespersen show
March 30, 2016
It’s often testy when Liberals appear on Alberta AM radio, and host Ryan Jespersen delved into a basket of uncomfortable topics including pipeline policy and whether the Prime Minister himself would be lighting up a joint when marijuana was legalized. The result, by National Post count, was 114 “uhs” in a segment lasting 12 minutes.
2015 Macleans’ leader’s debate
August 6, 2015
The segment analyzed was between minute 30:14 and 42:00, when the leaders were asked about energy and climate change. By National Post count, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair accumulated zero “uhs,” the Green Party’s Elizabeth May racked up one, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper got two and Trudeau scored 11.
The Canadian prime minister’s “uhs” are high, “but not the record,” said Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at UC San Diego, writing in an email to the National Post.
Christenfeld is a world leader on the study of speech disfluency. His research, which has involved intricately counting the “uhs” and “erms” of test subjects in various disciplines, determined that speech tics will accumulate depending on the “range of options being considered.” The more possible responses a speaker has, the more “uhs” they’ll utter as they try to pick one.
Mathematicians and chemists, who stick to a relatively tight glossary of terms, generally have the “cleanest” speech. Art historians, meanwhile, have stratospheric levels of speech pauses as they search for complex phrases such as “the relationship of depicted space to form.”
Politics obviously falls closer to the “art history” side of the ledger, particularly when a gaffe (“there’s a level of admiration I actually have for China,” for instance) can ruin a politician’s week.
It is, in short, my professional opinion that your PM is just fine
“It is, in short, my professional opinion that your PM is just fine,” said Christenfeld.
Toastmasters would disagree, of course. For years, the global effective speaking non-profit has been waging a relentless war against “filler” and “crutch” words such as “ahs” and “ums.” Each meeting of the group even includes a designated “Ah Counter” to highlight banishment-worthy filler words among members.
But linguist Michael Erard, who wrote the book Um…, a history of speech errors, was of a similar opinion to Christenfeld. Namely, that irregular speech is not the best indicator of intelligence, or the lack thereof.
It’s about preparedness, fatigue, or anxiety more than stupidity (or) deceitfulness
“It’s about preparedness, fatigue, or anxiety more than stupidity (or) deceitfulness,” he said.
Erard said he wrote Um… after watching U.S. President George W. Bush being relentlessly pilloried for an unorthodox speaking style filled with slip-ups and errors. Known to history as “Bushisms,” a good example was when the president told a crowd that “families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
Erard concluded, however, that Bush’s mistakes fell within normal parameters. And the same appears to be true of Trudeau.
“This happens because when we’re speaking things that we haven’t said before, it’s hard to both plan what to say and to say it,” he said. “And everybody does this.”
What might make Trudeau’s “uhs” more obvious, however, is that they frequently arise mid-sentence.
Obama will lay on the “uhs” quite heavily when he’s off teleprompter, but he will usually put them at the beginning or ends of sentences. At his most halting, by contrast, Trudeau will splice in an “uh” every three to four words.
The Prime Minister also happens to have picked one of the most-difficult-to-hide speech tics. With very few exceptions, every politician will have some method of stalling as they think their way through remarks.
In the Maclean’s debate, for instance, Stephen Harper has only two “uhs” — but he relies more heavily on less noticeable tics such as false starts and repeated phrases. Twice in 12 minutes, for instance, he begins a response by saying “well, look.”
In the United States, meanwhile, “uhs” almost never leave the lips of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Instead, the businessman (who is a product of the “uh”-hating world of American business) leans hard on repetition.
“I have many women at high positions … I mean I have so many women working for me and so many women in high positions working for me,” Trump said in an interview with CBS.
Erard said that it’s only relatively recently that the public has had a chance to zero in on the speaking styles of their leaders. Prior to the rise of mass media, politicians could get away with glaring verbal tics that would be considered viral-video worthy by today’s standards.
U.S. founding father Thomas Jefferson, for one, was such a bad orator that he started submitting his State of the Union speeches in writing. Canadian Prime Minister Sir John. A Macdonald delivered dozens of speeches that would have been noticeably inflected by alcohol.
But it is indeed to the advantage of Trudeau opponents to keep pointing out his “uhs” — which is probably why they do it.
“People do generally regard using these fillers as bad, and once one notices them it is very hard to stop, or to pay attention to the actual content of the utterance,” said Christenfeld.
Still, Erard contends that messy speech is just another product of living in a democracy. Soviet leaders were almost never caught uttering filler words, mostly because they never departed from nauseating party boilerplate. The pre-1945 Emperor of Japan never spoke in public at all.
“If you don’t like ‘uhs’ or ‘ums,’ go live in an autocratic society,” said Erard.
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National Post by Tristin Hopper | July 18, 2016 3:06 PM ET