Um, Like, So…You’re Killing Your Own Career

Noelle Ragas says her speech betrays her. The 32-year-old has a successful career in sales, but says her West Coast roots, like, often trip her up….you know?

“We tend to talk like Valley Girls,” Ragas says, of those from the West Coast. “I try to be conscious of it, but I have worked and lived in different parts of the country, and it just makes you stand out that much more as unprofessional and immature.”

But the use of fillers that runs rampant among millennials’ speech isn’t just a West Coast problem, with experts saying young women in particular fall prey to these speech patterns.

"Women are using more filler words than young men," says Nicole Williams, career expert at LinkedIn. "They are using more 'likes,' 'sorrys,' 'absolutely,' than men. It's all filler words."

While speech fillers can be annoying to the person on the other end of the conversation, they can also hurt career progression and workplace opportunities.

“I can’t tell you how many women discredit themselves with ‘likes,’ ‘so,’ and  fillers,” says Williams. “They seem stuck, like they don’t know what they are saying. It’s stereotypical of being young and dumb.”

Ragas says when she gets very excited and starts chatting, it’s even harder to reign in her speech “defect.”

“I have to stop myself from saying, ‘dude.’"

You Know, Here’s Why Women Use Fillers

Interjections and fillers may not make sense grammatically, but according to Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, they make social sense.

Tannen, the author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, says people simply want to sound like their peers. And young women in particular, fall victim to this.

“If you talk to your friends the way your parents talk, they will think you are stiff and odd.” And while qualifying things with, “I’m sorry,” or “like” or “you know” doesn’t always jibe grammatically, Tannen says the brain isn’t literal.

“Language doesn’t work that way,” she says. “It has its meaning in use, not in the dictionary. There is no point in asking for a literal explanation in an interjection.”

Will This, Like, Hurt Your Career Trajectory?

Speech can hurt career advancement, says career coach Kathy Caprino, who likens speech to appearance.  The way a person speaks can build them up just as quickly as it can break down opportunities.

She also explains confusing speech can dent a persons’ professionalism.

“If you are distracted by someone’s style of speech, you aren’t going to listen to the content. If you have a $10 million project and a sing-song-y voice, it will hold you back. When you are managing or leading projects, how you communicate will absolutely make or break career opportunities, possibilities and potential.”

Tannen says the triple whammy of having a high-pitched voice, using fillers and speaking in a sing-song manner is common among women, and is most detrimental to career progression.

“It’s common to have all three and they tend to go together,” she says. “They all impact performance and success—it makes the speaker seem younger, a bit silly and less competent.”

And what’s worse, women using these styles of speech are disempowering themselves in the workplace, says Helene Lerner, founder of

“Millennials, and young women in particular, have just as much to bring to the table as some of their senior managers,” Lerner says. “Even if you are not feeling confident, you have to act as if you do. If we want to get our ideas across, we need to come from a power stance.”

How to… Um…Make it Stop

For starters, take a deep breath, says Williams. Sometimes taking a pause to flesh out thoughts can make a major difference in voice and speech projection.

“Be okay with the pause,” she says. “It’s much more effective than, ‘um’ or ‘like.’ Pauses are quite powerful, and can peak people’s interest. They are waiting with bated breath to hear what you have to say.”

Another way to work around this issue is to videotape yourself, recommends Williams. “Seeing yourself in action means you will be shocked into change.”

Lerner suggests finding a friend to practice speaking with to help identify any fillers. “Once you get that feedback, and practice more and more, you will become more comfortable,” she says. “If you have butterflies in your stomach, feel those butterflies. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

Time helps as well, says Tannen.

“People grow out of it. It’s who you identify with—as your friends get older, they will start using it less. People vary. you change your style, your hair and the way you dress. Talking differently will be a part of that.”