I mean, You know.


We all suffer from conversational leakage. It is almost impossible to stop, like a dripping tap or besetting incontinence. We try in vain to cut off the flow or absorb it before anyone sees it. But we are all doing it, and if my casual observations are anything to go by, we are doing it more frequently.

Conversational leakage is the use of entirely unnecessary words or phrases to pad out our speech. I have played a little game recently of noting them down with their usage. Rather like bird-spotting. The Man U and Man C of this league table of verbal drips are the old favourites “I mean” and “You know”. We hear them everywhere, I mean, you only have to turn on the television or stand at the bus-stop and they are there, you know, popping up everywhere.

These terrible and symmetrical twins have infiltrated our every conversation. So when I speak I mean this, and what I say, you already know. They stitch our dialogues together – I with my meaning and you with your knowing, and back again. If you know what I mean. Because if you do know what I mean, we have a real conversation and we are making progress. If not, there is no true interaction, just alternate lines of speech. And you know what that is like. People who don’t listen, but just wait for their turn to speak.

I attended one of those intensive management courses many years ago where we focussed on eliminating leakages. Like a plumbing course but far more difficult. Leakages were vilified as the enemies of assertiveness; diluting our authority, diminishing our influence, making us appear indecisive. In some respects, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, I believe it may well be true that leakage is a sign of weakness. . . . should be replaced by “leakage is a sign of weakness”. If you understand my meaning? Actually (there I go again) I believe (and again) they are more a sign of being human, in my humble opinion (three strikes and OUT).

Many are, of course, quite innocent filler words. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, conversation abhors a silence. In fact, a silence usually attracts the adjective “awkward”. We rarely enjoy a rich expressive meaningful and rather helpful silence. So we make a noise – er, um, erm, errrmmmm, ummmmmmmmm (depending on whether we have a short one second silence or more extensive 2-3 second silence to eliminate). Anything longer requires some actual words from our filler bag – well, so, right, anyway, okaaaaay. We dip into this scrabble bag of words blindly and unconsciously. What we pull out is fairly random.

For some reason the horrible word, “actually” is most often pulled out when making an important presentation to a large group of important people at a key point. “So actually, in conclusion, the world is actually going to end”. Cringe.

Then there are the true diluting words or phrases. We use them when we have something rather difficult to say, maybe confrontational or controversial. That great lexicon Roy Walker encouraged us; “if you see it, say it”. To be honest, we don’t always have the courage, or more commendably, we don’t wish to hurt the other person’s feelings too much. So we (1) preface the difficult sentence with “to be honest” or “I’m quite sure” and our old favourite “I mean”. In some strange twist, the very act of emphasising that this is what we think, makes it more palatable. When people say “I am sure” they usually mean “I am not sure”. It’s a bit like saying “I don’t want to offend you, but”, before we offend someone.

Or we (2) signal that it is a broad conclusion distilled from on all of the facts and arguments, “at the end of the day”, “when all is said and done”. Or we (3) recognise what we say could be misinterpreted, wrap it in cotton wool before we pass it across, “in a sense, as it were, in some respects, I hate you”. Or we (4) engage with our opposite number and see it from his or her perspective “if you like”, “if you know what I mean” or our other old favourite “you know”. In other words, we are only telling them what they already know, what could possibly be difficult about that?

On the other hand, there is conversational cement. Words we use to hammer home the point, to nail the argument. Yes, we are already into the language of the macho handyman with his well-equipped toolbox of adverbs – definitely, completely, surely, ab-so-loooooo-tly. Or most amusingly (when you spot it) “No, absolutely”.

Often this is accompanied by an equally aggressive gesture – the leaning in, crowding of personal space, clenching the fist and – horror of horrors – the pointed finger (by the way, when you point a finger did you know that three fingers point back at you so ner ner ner). Needless to say, resorting to tools and gestures is usually a sign of insecurity – distracting people from the inner burst mains pipe of our confidence.

So anyway, there you go. These were, how shall we say, some thoughts on what you might call conversational leakage. I suspect you will already be drowning in them in this little piece of nonsense.

We all have our favourites. I have a colleague who hits about 50% leakage by words. We laugh about it and mimic him in a friendly way. His favourite is “in some respects”, as in, “in some respects the building is on fire”. It’s an endearing part of his personality. We would not point it out – it would probably upset him or – worse – stop saying it. Meetings would in some respects be shorter, but, in some respects be less enjoyable.

It can be fun picking them out in other people. When we find ourselves saying them ourselves, we can get a little depressed. I keep finding myself saying “you know” and chastise myself for my weakness and conformity. But I really shouldn’t. These little phrases weave through our conversation, sprinkling them with softness and making them taste more palatable. Our own favourites distinguish us as much as our haircut or our jewellery. There is a place for clarity, for directness and even for a few nails or hammers. But we should learn to accept and love our leakages and idiosyncrasies. You know what I mean, don’t you?

  5 comments for “I mean, You know.

  1. Susan
    May 5, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Oh my God! Like, you know, I mean, wow! Thanks for the article. The over use of ‘you know’ has always bothered me but recently, ‘I mean’ has drawn my attention, as though I had not been previously aware if it’s existence. What are we saying?? Why?? I decided to pay closer attention to its use in my daily life, to attempt to purge it from my own jargon and have discovered the two words appearing together as far back as old black and white films, thrown in as filler, as you say. Did the script writer put it in? Did the actor add it for flavor?
    It first began to annoy me when Christina Aguilera couldn’t keep from saying it constantly in her comments as a mentor on the television show, ‘The Voice’.
    I wondered if she thinks it sounds cool. Then I noticed Adam Levine does the same thing. Do we all do this! Can we help ourselves?
    I mentioned this to a friend in hopes that we could get to the bottom of this strange bridge of useless words. She agreed it was indeed an odd thing to toss into our sentences then proceeded to lead into another discussion, unable to help herself with liberal use of ‘I mean’….
    Stopping myself from adding ‘you know’ was a little difficult a few years back. Now, I actually wish I could shut out the noise of ‘I mean’ from even educated people around me. Drip drip drip.
    You know?
    One more thing. I was on the upper deck of a tour bus in Germany once, listening to the English voice in the headphones when a young person near me pulled his headphone aside and spoke to his friends in what I assumed to be a German accent. They all giggled when he said, ‘Isn’t English funny!? What does ‘by the way’ mean?’. I had never given that one any thought, either.
    Are we doomed to sound like fools? Or is it just endearing fluff?
    If Condaleeza Rice can say ‘um’ a thousand times in one speech to the heads of foreign countries, I suppose it is ok to quit worrying about my own speech quirks. Right? Am I right?

  2. Susan
    May 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Oh!! You leave my three dots alone!!! I must have some sins…

  3. June 30, 2012 at 9:29 am

    I am a great fan of the three little dots, much preferred to exclamation marks, they are rather subtle and tempting, inviting a thought, a response, a question, because, when all is said and done, nothing is ever said or done . . .

    • June 30, 2012 at 2:35 pm

      And besides, we don’t actually say ‘dot dot dot’, now do we? It is meant as a trailing-off, a leading-on to something else. I don’t write as I speak. Does anyone? I like the previous reply: an invitation. Dot dot dot.

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