Barriers to communication: “Auditory Clutter”

A few days ago while having breakfast, my wife and I were listening to The Today programme. Just after 7am Michelle Hussein interviewed a Professor of Pediatrics about the increasing incidence of Strep A in children and what could be done to prevent an expansion. Ten minutes later in the business round up, prompted no doubt by the recent collapse of FTX, there was an interview with the Editor of a financial journal about proposed crypto market regulation.

Both interviewees were knowledgeable yet while Ana and I could not recall much from the second we could recall most of the first. Why?

It wasn’t jargon, or technical terminology, that obstructed our hearing it was what Ana described as “Auditory Clutter”. As Managing Director of Bees Homes, she draws on an Interior Designer background in selling unique homes. Part of her expertise is to decluttter a property and stage it so prospective buyers can imagine themselves living there.

I would argue the same applies in communication. If we declutter our spoken words it makes it easier for the listener to grasp the message we are trying to convey and not get lost in redundant words. Interestingly, in the context of speech, “Cluttering” is described on Wikipedia as:

… a speech and communication disorder characterized by a rapid rate of speech, erratic rhythm, and poor syntax or grammar making speech difficult to understand.”

So, back to The Today interviews, what were the differences? In the first, responses were delivered at a considered pace, with good diction, a relaxed (almost Pilot like) manner, and a total absence of filler words. In the second, we lost count of the number of Ums and Ers; by the end we were listening to those and not the essence of the message.

Here’s a challenge. Next time you are talking to a group or a friend get them to count how many of these filler words or phrases they hear you say:

  • So
  • You know
  • I mean or You know what I mean
  • Like, as in, I was like
  • Er, Erm or Um, OK, right
  • Yeah

If you don’t think it matters, take a look at this sentence I heard someone utter recently, “English is like, totally fun to learn, you know”. If you remove the filler or redundant words “English is fun to learn” is more succinct and comprehensible.

An English phenomenan?

Lest you think this is purely an English phenomenan think again. In my adopted country Portugal, filler words play an important part in day to day conversations as I found when taking a language course a few months back.

I also recall when, as a budding young relationship manager at Saudi International Bank, I was sitting in front of the treasurer of the national airline in his Jeddah office telling him we will no longer offer encashment services in London for his staff and cabin crew. Though fluent in English he repeatedly used the word Ya’ni between sentences. I was unsure at first if it was an insult – I discovered it wasn’t.

And finally

Is the use of filler (meaningless) words) necessarily a bad thing? I’ve spoken to people who say they form an essential part of conversations giving people thinking time before responding. I am indebted to Portuguese with Eli for this explanation:

They don’t have a meaning in and of themselves. But they do perform an important role in the conversation.

Sometimes they help you include the listener in what you’re talking about.

Other times they help you introduce a new topic or take a new turn in the conversation.

But mostly, they help you make time to think — and that’s their most important role.

My conclusion: try to avoid filler words if presenting or responding to formal questions BUT if having an informal conversation, go with what feels right!

Today’s photo:a rooftop conversation in Lisboa around SocialNow that was devoid of auditory clutter between a Canadian, Dutchman, Englishman and a Portuguese.

Food Banks: from Chicago to Coventry

On Tuesday night the BBC ran a programme about a food bank in Coventry. Last night I attended a thought provoking lecture at Chatham House on the future prospects for the US economy. I intend to show you why I think the two are connected.

Dr DeAnne Julius the speaker at Chatham House is an influential economist on both sides of ‘The Pond’ and was a founding member of the UK’s Monetary Policy Committee.  Her assessment of what the incoming President will face over the next four years is chilling:

  • Continued low growth of 2% p.a. and high unemployment of above 8%;
  • Increased inequality between haves and have nots resulting in children being tied to the social class of their parents, signalling in effect the death of the American dream – no longer will the next generation be better off than the last;
  • Deadlocked legislature placing a constraint on the President resulting in increased State level involvement who will implement experimental local policies and taxes; and
  • Continued growth of voluntary sector (church groups and baby boomers with time on their hands) as middle and low income jobs are replaced by technology and, with increased globalisation, outsourced to lower cost markets.

The demographic similarities with the UK are striking: fewer young people going to University; a growth in the number of single parent families; a rise in short term and part time contracts; graduates doing unpaid internships (where they can get them) as a precursor to employment; and a declining population supporting an aging population with unsustainable pensions and benefits.  One in six Americans are on food stamps and US debt is at historically high levels being 7% of GDP (remember those aspirational times in Europe when country debt was not supposed to exceed 3% of GDP).

You get the picture: the recovery in the US will be long and painful for an increasing number; more and more people will end up relying on food handouts and support; and it is less likely that any recovery in the UK will be fuelled by one from the US.

Britain’s Hidden Hungry broadcast on Tuesday night investigated the growing importance of charity foodbanks to thousands of hungry people across the UK by following the stories of three users of a foodbank in Coventry. Here’s a taster:

Care-leaver Charlotte eats just one meal a day. It’s all she can afford, so she starves herself till evening. Sandra, middle class mother of five, is embarrassed that all she can give her son for his school packed lunch is bread and butter. Middle manager Kelly, mother of two, hasn’t eaten for two days. Meet Britain’s hidden hungry – and they’re not what you’d expect.

As of 2012, more than 170,000 people are believed to be dependent on a chain of 300 foodbanks run by a Christian charity, the Trussell Trust.


Coventry food bank volunteeers (courtesy of BBC)



A month ago I ran a Knowledge Cafe in Lewes that looked at the potential to make better use of surplus food using a model developed by Plan Zheroes in London. Among those attending were volunteers from church groups, councils and local interest groups. There was broad agreement that with next April’s changes to housing and benefit entitlement there would be an increase in the number of people torn between food and heating or children’s clothing. As the write up said quoting local councillor Ruth O’Keeffe, ‘this is a theme which has reached its moment… there is definitely a need for this’. 

Just down the road Newhaven shoppers have been doing their bit to help (mirroring one approach shown on the BBC programme). ‘Generous shoppers in Newhaven help to donate 6,000 meals to needy’ was the headline in the local Sussex Express applauding the joint efforts of Sainsbury’s and FareShare in giving food for onward distribution to those who need it.

Next week I will be attending my first PlanZheroes meeting in London.  My aim is to see how (having established there is an issue to be addressed in Sussex and beyond) the PZ Map can augment the excellent efforts already in place and mobilise additional surplus food.  Watch this space and please if you are interested in helping get in touch.