Conversation fillers kill conversation

Roxanne Sadovsky

Although it’s hard to believe, my father has become one of the few people with whom I share the intimate details of my life. During our conversations, I am occasionally reminded of the distance between us. While it’s been 28 years since he was captured in a photograph holding (infant) me awkwardly – as though I was a woman’s purse – it’s fair to say that until recently, we were never very close. In fact, the other night we were finishing up another Hallmark Card conversation over the telephone when he interrupted me mid-sentence.

“Do you realize you say ‘you know’ about 15 times per paragraph?”

At first I had no idea what he was talking about because I was disclosing the intense fear I was feeling about a super guy I recently met. Assuming he was exchanging trivia with my stepmom, I chuckled and moved on, the tactic I usually employ when he floats in and out of conversations. “You know?”

“You know?” he mocked, which if you know my dad, is not like him.

“What?” It was becoming a who’s-on-first situation. “Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“You know?”

“You know. You know.” Apparently he felt a need to repeat these words every time I asked them.

“Who you talking to?!”

“You! Ya know! Ya know!”

“Did I miss something?”

“You keep saying ‘ya know’ like every other word. You do that a lot, you know.”

While I am well aware that my dad is fairly observant, he is not what one would call spontaneous. Consequently, these stored-up observations of character are sweet, but he chooses to spring said moments of clarity at the weirdest times, particularly when I am in that rare zone referred to by the functionals as ‘in the present.’ “Dad, what does this, you know, have to – what? I do?”

“Yes. Didn’t you know that?”

“No. I do? I do not. I mean, I might do it once in a while, you know, like, when, I don’t know, when, you know, I am trying to express Ö Jesus. I do.”

“Athletes do it all the time,” he says, as though that might comfort my distress, and somehow it does. “You hear them on interviews all the time.” He moves into his imitation, the evidence: “Ya know, we, uh, could have, ya know, ya know, won the game, but ya know, ya know Ö we lost, ya know, control, ya know, ya know, when, ya know.” He is having so much fun with the imitation I don’t have the heart to interrupt. “Ya know, ya know. Athletes. You do that, too.”

Oddly comforted by my company among the dumb jocks once again, I exhale instead of getting defensive.

“Hmm.” I start to say something, but I find I am suddenly cautious of what I might say. “Hmmm. Wow.” I attempt a sentence, but abort mid-launch.

“I do it, too,” dad rescues, admitting how his wife has been giving him a hard time about his own speech patterns lately.

He then launches into all the reasons why she is right, which he is wont to do, so long as he can liken himself to the athletes. “Maybe it’s genetic.”

I realize I am not getting my needs met, so I decide to play along. I decide it’s not worth it to fire up my speech in defense

of sloppy language as long as it is not dressed in cliche’s tacky and dated ball gown. I decide to ignore the fact that my responsibility as a writer is to encourage authentic expression and outlaw forced sentiment that festers in passive aggressive words like ‘kudos.’

But sometimes I can be sort of superstitious about the amount of progress dad and I are permitted in one conversation. While it’s okay to talk about how fun it is to be falling in love, it’s not worth rushing nature. It’s not worth being held at arm’s length like a purse, I’ll tell you that much.

“You should put it in your next column,” he suggests. “Maybe you’ll get a letter back from one of the athletes.”

I agree, either ready to move on or with a lot of enthusiasm for what is being said. Of course this is when the real debate begins and where the conversation gets really fun. We waltz into a montage of familial speech patterns that date back to the day my grandparents, his parents, landed on the shores of Ellis Island and handcuffed our surname to the history books, transforming us from Sadovskys to Sadoffs.

It occurs to me that all of language is filler, a series of connect-the-sound-dots in order to make a connection with our cohort species. This explains why my father’s well-rehearsed observation of my colloquial common man, ‘you know,’ made me feel as though our conversational game of fetch was over. It was a coup de connection, plain and simple.

George Orwell discussed in his concept of newspeak how language has the capacity to shut down our natural instincts. In other words, the more I am made aware of how many times I say ‘ya know,’ the further I move from the internal knowledge of what I do know. My savage rhythm becomes threatened by the slow barge of reason. Whether we tango or make muzak, it all depends on the amount of ping and pong we are able to play with each other.

Suddenly, so much becomes clear. It explains why my last boyfriend had a hard time dancing or knowing how to take his turn in conversation. It explains why it is OK to sit in a classroom and answer questions right or wrong instead of having a conversation about a naturally evoked response to the topic. No wonder the interpersonal dissonance and misunderstanding we all complain about is because we are encouraged to act our words instead of saying them. This Catch-22 produces the apathetic learned helplessness of conversation, the same one for which we insist on blaming Eminem. While Eminem might well benefit from counseling, none of that is lost in translation. If we censor the instinct that feeds the colorful schmeer that is the English language, we run the risk of muting our humanity.

Roxanne Sadovsky’s biweekly column appears alternate Thursdays. She

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