Formulaic utterances are chunks of spoken or written language that have a fixed form. They include fillers such as "um," "like," or "well." And they include more elaborate constructs such as "That's a difficult question but I'll try to answer it as best I can…" or "Let me start by saying/noting/observing that…". Estimates are that formulaic utterances account for 25-70% of all discourse. Like all communication, formulaic utterances transmit information, but transmitting information might not be their primary function.
The meanings formulaic utterances actually transmit might differ from their literal meanings. For example, "with all due respect" can actually transmit contempt or disrespect. Two relatively recent additions, "his or her" and "he or she," convey not an ambiguity of gender, but rather the speaker's (writer's) acknowledgment of the neutrality of gender relative to the topic at hand. One of the shortest of the formulaic utterances, "um," has no literal meaning whatsoever.
How formulaic utterances can be risky to use
An important Some formulaic utterances — fillers — let
the speaker collect his or her thoughts while
keeping control of the audio "channel,"
and not risking its loss to someone elsefunction of some formulaic utterances is the "filler" role. They give the speaker the ability to keep control of the audio "channel" without risking its loss to someone else while the speaker collects his or her thoughts. Investigations of the use of fillers have shown elevated use when the speaker experiences high cognitive load — that is, when the speaker must devote significant resources to managing memory of elements of the communication exchange. One can reasonably suppose that use of fillers might become elevated when the subject of the exchange is unfamiliar, complex, or otherwise a source of stress to the speaker.
Fillers include "like," "um," "That's a great question," or even, at times, "indeed." By culture-specific convention, listeners grant speakers a quota of fillers. Speakers who exceed their quotas pay penalties in the form of loss of audience attention or loss of credibility. Repeat offenders might experience career stagnation.
Using other formulaic utterances at work can present risks in other forms. Some examples of characteristics that present risk include:
- Out of place in the workplace culture
- Too closely identified with low social status
- Overused to the point of being trite
- Too bulky
- Sexist or racist
- Excessively and too predictably sarcastic
- Graphically depicting violence
- Otherwise generally offensive
Formulaic utterances that can be risky to use
Some examples of formulaic utterances that present risk to the user:
- Very, very
- Very, very, very
- In your face
- How all this will play out
- Keep in mind that
- Remember that
- On the front lines
- You've got to be/must be kidding
- Excuse me?
- Hang on a minute
- Not so fast
- Hold on there, chief
- We can walk and chew gum at the same time
- I get that
- News flash
- The biggest thing I hear from them is
- You know
- You know what I mean
- You know what I'm saying
- I mean
- I have neither the time nor the inclination to
- So I asked myself
- Let that sink in
- Break down the silos
- Do more with less
- Work smarter, not harder
- Throw her/him/them under the bus
- Drink the Kool-Aid
- It is what it is
- Take it offline
- Tee it up
- Off the rails
- Opening a can of worms
- This is about X, This is not about X
- The fact of the matter is
The most important characteristic of any formulaic utterance is that it is formulaic. It isn't original. It's familiar to (nearly) all speakers of the language, or to (nearly) all participants in the micro-culture in which the utterance is in wide use. In Part II of this survey, we'll examine some properties of formulaic utterances that present advantages to their users. And we'll include examples. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- There Is No Rumor Mill
- Rumors about organizational intentions or expectations can depress productivity. Even when they're factually
false, rumors can be so powerful that they sometimes produce the results they predict. How can we manage
- Encourage Truth Telling
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reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports
truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
- Communication Templates: II
- Communication templates are patterns that are so widely used that once identified, nearly everyone recognizes
them. In this Part II we consider some of the more toxic — less innocuous — communication
- Recognizing Hurtful Dismissiveness
- "Never mind" can mean anything from "Excuse me, I'm sorry," to, "You lame idiot,
it's beyond you," and more. The former is apologetic and courteous. The latter is dismissive and
hurtful. We have dozens of verbal tactics for hurting each other dismissively. How can we recognize them?
- Columbo Tactics: I
- When the less powerful must deal with the more powerful, or the much more powerful, the less powerful
can gain important advantages by adapting the strategy and tactics of the TV detective Lt. Columbo.
Here's Part I of a collection of his tactics.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: On Working Breaks in Meetings
- When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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