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We usually think of etiquette as rules of polite behaviour.
They come from social norms.

What about the etiquette for speech? Is it long gone or just forgotten? Am I out of step with the culture of today, the way younger people speak, their communication innuendos or their idiosyncratic verbal style?

Why does speech etiquette matter to me? It grates against my ear to hear speech that is littered with filler words that have no meaning and clutter the message. I hear questions when none are intended. I identify muffled speech and words that say one thing and mean something else. I call them SFPs – Speech Faux Pas.

I’m not the only one who notices them. The boss, the client, the customer, the friend or family member hears them too. What effect do they have on the listener? I believe people respond negatively to these mannerisms, whether consciously or unconsciously.

So what is a Speech Faux Pas? It’s any speech idiosyncrasy that diminishes your verbal style, sends mixed messages to your listener or precludes a clear crisp message in communication. One major problem with SFPs is that the speaker rarely hears the pattern and may become defensive when it’s pointed out.

“Everyone speaks this way.” “You’re making too much of it.” “There’s nothing wrong with the way I speak.”

It seems that these people, most often under 30 yrs. and/or female, (although not always) don’t realize that their speech reflects poorly on them and diminishes their message. It detracts from a positive first impression. Like your handshake, your voice and speech are integral to your presence. Ideally the speaker uses grammatically correct language, with a distinct voice, that engages the listener. SFPs create a barrier between the speaker and the listener. The listener must wade through the words to receive the message. It takes a lot of energy to listen that hard.

For business people and professionals, your verbal style will contribute to your success or undermine it. In public speaking, presentations or negotiations, this style of speaking is especially noticeable. It focuses the other person on how you speak rather than what you’re saying.

No doubt these are difficult patterns to break, yet it can be done. If you suffer from SFPs, take heart. You can change poor speaking habits and convert them to stronger ones. It’s well worth the effort.

Here are a few SFP examples:


Upspeak or uptalk occurs when a person makes a question out of a sentence that isn't a question. Their pitch rises at the end of the sentence when it should come downward. This pattern of intonation demonstrates a lack of assertiveness and authority. The speaker doesn’t inspire the confidence of the listener. Upspeak implies the speaker is seeking continual approval and affirmation.

Learning tip: Tape yourself in conversations and identify when you’re using upspeak. Repeat the same words with a downward pitch at the end of the sentence. Use more inflection mid sentence to encourage a downward drop at the end. Speaking louder may help as well. Find a buddy who will send you a secret signal to speak “down” in the moment.

Filler Words or sounds

“Like,” “You know,” “I mean,” “Truthfully,” “Well,” “Ahh,” “Um,” or a giggle/laugh

Filler words and sounds are problematic for many speakers. Initially, they may have been adopted to give the speaker more time to think of what they were going to say. Eventually, they become a bad habit. These speakers are not comfortable with silence. Everyone uses filler words or sounds sometimes. But when they occur too frequently, they interfere with listener concentration. They become loud in the ear of the listener and send a negative message about the speaker. Almost always the speaker is deaf to the high frequency of the filler word or sound.

Learning tip: Tape yourself in casual conversation or on the phone. Count the number of times you hear your filler word or sound within five minutes. Practice in conversation with a trusted friend or coach. Try talking for 3 minutes without saying “that” word or sound. When you hear the SFP, repeat the exact sentence without that word/sound. Use a silent pause in its place. Learn to become comfortable with silent pauses. It may sound awkward at first, but persevere and you will succeed.


Mumbling comes in all ages and stages. It’s about speaking indistinctly and quietly, making it difficult for others to hear. Mumbling usually demonstrates a lack of energy or conviction on the part of the speaker. It’s frustrating for the listener and can be seen as manipulative. Often we hear mumbling in teenagers or old people. When an adult mumbles it’s especially disconcerting and considered rude. It could be a sign of under confidence, shyness or fatigue.

Learning tip: Mumbling most often results when the mouth opens very little during speaking. The sounds created in the mouth are confined and warbled. By speaking louder, the mouth will naturally open wider and the mumbling will reduce. The speaker has to be willing to put more energy into her/his voice.

The basics of how to act in both business and social situations is what etiquette is all about. How well you express yourself, how fluent you are, your tone of voice, your volume, your clarity of message, your grammar, contribute to a strong verbal presence. It may be a longer journey for some than for others, but well worth the trip.

Bina Feldman is a former Speech Language Pathologist, now working in Training & Development. She delivers Communication Skills workshops and offers one-on-one training and coaching.