Um, I Wasn’t Finished: How We Undermine Female Expertise Through the Misinterpretation of Filler Phrases

Sandhya Rajkumar

The so-called “cultural mismatch” between femininity and expertise has been pointed to as a source of the gender discrepancies in academia. However, this phenomenon has consequences that reach beyond the scope of the ivory tower, as the notion of expertise is present in nearly every field. This “cultural mismatch” is even present in the culinary field, a field that is often presumed to be free of common gender stereotypes that are present in other spheres. In order to better understand how this phenomenon is perpetuated, interviews of famous male and female culinary experts were recorded and transcribed. Portions of the interviews in which the interviewees were discussing their areas of expertise were analyzed, through which it was observed that though both men and women use filler phrases such as uh and um, women’s use of these filler phrases was more likely to be interpreted as a cue for interruption, and thereby followed by subsequent interruption, while men were able to use these phrases to hold the conversational floor. This finding may be one way through which women’s authoritative expertise and influence are undermined, thus furthering the negative stereotype of the “cultural mismatch” between femininity and expertise.

Introduction

A previous study on gender and expertise found that in group settings, even when men and women possessed similar levels of expertise, women were perceived as less expert than men, were less influential, and were less confident about their impact (Thomas-Hunt & Phillips, 2004). Another study found a difference in the styles of interaction used by male and female graduate students, namely that male students were much more likely to use styles that highlighted their expertise (Hirshfield, 2017). Though the culinary field seems to subvert many of the age-old gender stereotypes, previous work has shown that in foodie culture, men are more likely to focus on the theme of knowledge and expertise when describing their relationship with food (Cairns et al., 2010). This study will focus on gender-related linguistic differences pertaining to expertise and how they present themselves in an interview setting, specifically within the culinary field. 

Filler phrases like uh and um are commonplace in our everyday language. However, these simple terms can have large effects on the way speakers are perceived by their audiences. One study found that though these phrases can be used by speakers to “hold the floor” and give them time to continue their thought, they may not always be interpreted as such (Clark & Fox Tree, 2002). In fact, another study found that people often interpret use of filler phrases as a sign of nervousness or inadequate preparation (Christenfield, 1995). The present study seeks to find any gendered difference in the way the use of filler phrases is interpreted, and if this difference in interpretation can affect the occurrence of interruptions.

When looking at interruptions, the present study classifies them based on their purpose; interruptions can serve to either change the topic, express disagreement, or obtain the conversational floor (Murata, 1994). These interruptions will be distinguished from other types of speech overlap, such as backchanneling, which is often used to show encouragement by the listener, rather than to change the topic or take control of the conversation (Murata, 1994). 

This study found that women’s use of filler phrases such as uh and um were more likely to be interpreted as a cue for interruption, and thereby followed by subsequent interruption, while men were able to use these phrases to extend their conversational turn. This phenomenon may be a potential mechanism through which women’s expertise is undermined.

 Methods

The analysis was performed on a viral interview series called “Hot Ones,” posted by the First We Feast channel on the streaming platform YouTube. In these videos, the interviewer, Sean Evans, a 33-year-old male, interviewed celebrities while they ate hot wings in order of increasing spice level. Four interviews with famous culinary experts, two males and two females, were chosen in order to look at differences in language use between genders. The focus of the study was on gender and expertise, so only portions of the interview in which the interviewees were discussing their respective areas of expertise were transcribed.

Results

 Before delving into a more detailed conversation analysis of each interview, the first metric that was recorded was the frequency of the use of filler words. Filler words are a feature of “women’s language” (Lakoff, 1973) so the default assumption would be that they would be more present in the interviews with female interviewees than with male interviewees. To measure this, the total number of filler word usages was divided by the total number of words spoken by the interviewee during the clips of interest. This gave a measurement of how frequently each interviewee used filler words, which is presented in the table below.

Figure 1: Each interviewee, by gender, and their filler word usage rate

Surprisingly, both of the male interviewees used filler phrases much more frequently than either of the female interviewees in these data.

The first interviewee that was looked at was Rachael Ray, a 51-year-old Caucasian woman. The following is a transcription from the opening clip of her interview:

Figure 2: Transcription from Rachael Ray (00:10-01:10)

This interruption is particularly interesting because it coincides with the use of the filler phrases um and uh in lines 18-19. The interviewer appeared to have read these filler phrases as a cue for him to comment, as he proceeds to interrupt her in line 20. However, she then proceeds to interrupt him to continue her thought, reclaiming the conversational floor, which could indicate that her use of filler phrases in previous lines were not intended as a cue to interrupt.

However, it is important to note that female interviewees were still interrupted in other scenarios when they did not make use of filler phrases. This becomes apparent through the interview with Padma Lakshmi, a 49-year-old South Asian woman.

Figure 3: Transcription from Padma Lakshmi (00:24-00:58)

When Sean interrupted Padma in line 7, he shifted the focus of the conversation from Padma to himself, and “took the floor” of the conversation. This shift in focus persisted until line 10, where she then interrupted him to bring the focus of the conversation back to herself. Also, in that same statement, she emphasized the word I, which also could have been an attempt to reclaim the conversational floor.

 As seen in Figure 1, both male interviewees use filler phrases more often than the female interviewees. Alton Brown, a 57-year-old Caucasian male who used filler words the most frequently, was actually interrupted less often and less disruptively than either of the female interviewees. In the opening clip of his interview, there was only one instance of overlapping speech between Alton and the interviewer.”

Figure 4: Transcript from Alton Brown (00:35-01:16)

The speech overlap in line 14 could be classified as a form of back-channeling, as the interviewer is trying to express his agreement, rather than change the topic or take control of the conversation. Note that in lines 12 and 15, Alton is making use of the filler phrases um and uh, but the interviewer does not seem to interpret this as a cue to interrupt. This is different than what occurred in the interview with Rachael Ray, where her use of filler phrases were often met with subsequent interruptions.

This same trend was present for the interview of Gordon Ramsay, a 53-year-old Caucasian man. During his clip of the interview, there was not a single successful interruption by the interviewer.

Figure 5: Transcript from Gordon Ramsay (03:04-04:01)

The overlapping occurrence of “oh” in the above transcript was the only time there was an incidence of overlapping speech during this portion of the interview. Again, though compared to Rachael Ray, he used more filler phrases and took longer pauses, the interviewer did not seem to interpret these as a cue to interrupt.

Discussion

This analysis suggests that there could potentially be a relationship between the way women’s use of filler phrases are interpreted and the negative stereotypes that undermine female authority and expertise. In conversations, the person who is doing the interrupting can come off as the more powerful, dominant party, leaving the person who is being interrupted as their less-powerful counterpart. In situations where a woman is sharing her expert opinion, this dynamic can function to undermine the perception of the woman as an expert.

However, there are a few study limitations that should be kept in mind. First and foremost, these interviews are from an online streaming platform, and were edited and put together by the Hot Ones team before being uploaded. Additionally, this study only looked at portions of the interview where interviewees were discussing their relevant areas of expertise; future work could be done to see if and how these portions differ from those where other topics are being discussed.

 

References

Cairns, K., Johnston, J., & Baumann, S. (2010). Caring About Food: Doing Gender in the Foodie Kitchen. Gender and Society, 24(5), 591-615. Retrieved February 10, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/25741206

Christenfeld, N. (1995). Does it hurt to say um? ​Journal of Nonverbal Behavior​, ​19​(3), 171–186.doi: 10.1007/bf02175503

Clark, H., & Fox Tree, J. E. (2002). Using uh and um in spontaneous speaking. ​Cognition,​ ​84(​1), 73–111. doi: 10.1016/s0010-0277(02)00017-3

Hirshfield, L. E. (2017). “I Don’t Know Everything, But Ethan Would Know”: Language, Expertise, and the Cultural Mismatch for Women Scientists. NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education, 10(1), 118–137. https://doi.org/10.1080/19407882.2016.1268167

Lakoff, R. (1973). Language and woman’s place. ​Language in Society,​ ​2​(1), 45-79.doi:10.1017/S0047404500000051

Murata, K. (1994). Intrusive or co-operative? A cross-cultural study of interruption. ​Journal of Pragmatics​, ​21​(4), 385–400. doi: 10.1016/0378-2166(94)90011-6

Thomas-Hunt, M. C., & Phillips, K. W. (2004). When What You Know Is Not Enough: Expertise and Gender Dynamics in Task Groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(12), 1585–1598. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167204271186

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