Y’Know, Y’Know, Y’Know
[This entry was originally posted on March 10, 2010]
If you followed the public pronouncements of Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota Motor, while he is dealing with the travails caused by instances of unintended acceleration in his company’s cars, you’ve probably heard him speaking Japanese before the English translation takes over. And you’ve doubtless heard him utter the word ano. A lot. In fact, Toyoda, says ano so much you might think it’s Japanese for a really common word like “the” or “it.”
In fact, ano means “there” — as in “that over there.” But like many Japanese speakers, Mr. Toyoda uses ano not as a word, but as a filler, a meaningless sound meant to buy time in a sentence. You can tell ano is being used as a filler without knowing another word of Japanese; when the meaning is “there,” as in “there is my Prius,” ano is short and choppy. When it’s buying time in a sentence, it’s pronounced anoooo. The longer the o sound, the more time the speaker is buying.
The American equivalents of anooooo are ummm and y’know. We hear them in interviews all the time. To me, y’know is the most offensive filler. Generally, when someone throws in a y’know, I DO know, so they are inadvertently insulting me by asking me if I can follow their line of reasoning.
Y’know is an awkward crutch that creeps into interviewers’ questions as well as interview subjects’ answers. The otherwise excellent NPR interviewer, Terry Gross, peppers her questions with y’knows all the time, sometimes inserting two and three into a single sentence. I find her difficult to listen to because of it; I spend my time counting y’knows, not listening to her questions. Moreover, y’know appears to be contagious. When Ms. Gross does it, her interview subject is likely to incorporate y’knows into his answers.
Caroline Kennedy is, y’know, President Kennedy’s daughter.
The all-time, black belt champion of y’know is John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline who, when she was exploring a run for the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year, used y’know 142 times in a single New York Times interview. Ms. Kennedy was able to stuff three and four of them into a single paragraph, as in: “So I think in many ways, y’know, we want to have all kinds of different voices, y’know, representing us, and I think what I bring to it is, y’know, my experience as a mother, as a woman, as a lawyer, y’know, I’ve been an education activist for the last six years here, and, y’know, I’ve written seven books – two on the Constitution, two on American politics.” That’s five y’knows in a seventy-one word answer.
[Update: Ms. Kennedy did not run for the Senate. In 2013, President Obama appointed named her ambassador to Japan. Where, appropriately enough, she can mix her y’knows with the local anoooos.]
Another strange turn of phrase, one that tends to come almost exclusively from scientists, is the word so used at the start of an answer as in this exchange: “How will this experiment expand our knowledge of the universe?” “So, what we are going to study is…..” At a recent gathering I attended a number of scientists spoke. In the Q&A sessions, almost every one of them began the majority of their answers with, “So….”
I think I know the reason for this one. Scientists, by inclination and training prefer to build to a conclusion. But they know that laymen want a conclusion first, followed by the supporting data. In media training sessions we drive home that message using the slogan “Key Point Up Front.” When building his argument with peers, our scientist lays out the evidence and when about to deliver his conclusion uses the word “so.” Actually, “so,” used this way is layman speak for “ergo,” which in its original Latin meant “because of,” but was adopted as a synonym for “therefore” in 14th century English.
The real question for those of us who do presentations and answer media and public questions is how to we banish our English anooooos?
First, we have to realize we have the bad habit. During media training sessions, scientists often learn they use so as a starter and laymen learn they use y’know as a filler only when I play back their practice interviews during our critiques. The expressions have become a reflex, almost like breathing and the speakers are unaware they’re using them.
If you’re not in a media training session, how do you know you’re using so and y’know? The best way to find out is to record a conversation with another person, play it back and see if you’re so-ing and y’knowing.
If you are, sometimes preempting the filler works. For example, you can start a response with “You know, the most important thing to realize is….” By using the fully spelled out “you know,” you put yourself on mental notice not to use the filler conjunction y’know. Similarly, to eliminate the answer-starting so, a scientist need only incorporate the sense of the question at the start of his answer. “This experiment will expand our knowledge….”
In fact, I recommend always incorporating the sense of a question in an interview answer because it makes your answer self-contained and gives you a moment to decide where you want your answer to go. Of course, that presupposes that you’ve come into the interview with an agenda of points you want to make. If you have, if you’ve practiced them in mock interviews, if you’ve recorded those exercises and listened to yourself critically you’re unlikely to fall back on fillers.
Another cure for y’know — which I recommend with a caution — is to say it quickly fifty times in a row. The caution is that this either works totally, because it triggers your brain to be aware of the phrase, or it results in disaster, because it plants the phrase firmly in your mind and you fall back on it constantly. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know which effect the repetition maneuver will have until you actually do it.
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