WNYC’s On the Media is a great show. One of the things that makes it so is its peerless audio editing. A story from one of its (since deceased) staff members spoke to this aspect: how surprised he was, upon experiencing the process, that Bob Garfield did not in fact always have precisely the word right to hand, but sometimes went searching for it, like the rest of us, behind the wandering torch of a prolonged uhhhhhhhhh; or that each of Brooke Gladstone’s interviewees did not instantly reply to her stunningly composed questions in clean, perspicacious paragraphs. Rather, as with any other magic show, work was being done! Lots of it!
We’re driving home from out of town Sunday, listening to the latest episode, and Gladstone’s interviewing a journalist about the bus that went missing in Mexico when this man says um-hmm in a perfectly natural way that nevertheless knocks me out of the narrative orbit. You don’t normally hear um-hmms in On the Media. Normally they dandruff the cutting room floor, is my guess, victims of the producers’ yen for musically uncluttered dialogue. This one, though, was crafty: it’d been threaded inexcisably between Gladstone’s words. A freight-car-hopping um-hmm. A tumor you can’t cut out. An itsy bitsy little morsel of information. But what is it, exactly: um-hmm? Is it even grammatical?
Arielle and I puzzle over this for a few miles. Clearly, um-hmm is “yes.” Suddenly there is so much to think about. The next day, waiting at the deli for sliced turkey, I scribble down a second list next to my grocery list: categories of speech that can be expressed vocally without using words. It gets more interesting after yes and no.
Let me think about that, for instance, can take many forms. The straight-up, considered hmm belongs here, of course—perhaps the Model T of the hummed nonverbal set—but so to does the aforementioned full-throated uhhhhhhhhh. I am shocked could come across in numerous ways, though the one that first occurred to me deliside was the old-fashioned rapid-intake-of-breath (hhe?). That feels good might take the prize for broadest category, comprising the oofs of sitting in chairs alongside the hummed exhalations of getting your feet rubbed and sex’s gamut of breaths and moans.
A little looking revealed the term backchannel: defined by google as “a sound or gesture made to give continuity to a conversation by a person who is listening to another.” According to my researches, the most common backchannels in American English are: yeah, uh-huh, hm, right, and OK. Clearly, the scope of my investigation is larger (a bloodcurdling scream conveys meaning but does not provide continuity to any but the weirdest conversation), but what a swell place to start. Scroll to the bottom of the page referenced above and you will find links to a slightly ticcy Englishman lecturing on “clicking and tutting”, a very brief audio-visual representation of “Huh” being a universal word, and actually pretty fascinating schematics of backchannels in recorded and diagrammed action.
One might intimate that hurts with a sharp inhale through the teeth or with a noise way back in the throat. Speaking in his final White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend, President Obama joked that the media had covered Trump’s campaign with restraint and judiciousness. He commenced then with a trifecta of back-throat notes connoting moral judgement (doubled by the customarily wagging head) followed by a fourth note a full five seconds later! (This drama unfolds from time marks 22:24 – 22:30 in the above, if you’d like to see for yourself.) The fourth note is not so much a reiteration of the judgment as an avowal of baffled helplessness: a Tevya moment.
That hurts or that feels bad encompasses a vast range of nonverbal responses. We can say it with a twitch, a flinch, a look, a coloring. We can say it with a mood, or by retaliating. By pleading and crying, shaking our fist, shaking all over. We can say it by vowing revenge or retreating into silence.
When something tastes good, there’s a noise for that. It’s different from when something tastes refreshing. The former is typically another back-of-the-throat noise, while the latter is a cold, happy exhalation, ala the Busch beer commercials of old. The former might start high, dive low, go high twice more and finish low (a ditty of enjoyment that must have come from somewhere, ’cause everything did, and was it a commercial, probably? Some grandma in hair-curlers, licking a spoon clean and shaking her hips? Did I just create that image?) but the latter is always true. (My touchstone for that was refreshing is Danny Glover’s character in Silverado, integrating a saloon by having his first sip of whisky in ten days.) (Which is strange, when you think about it, because no matter your take on whisky, it is many things, but it is seldom refreshing.) (O.K., I can’t find the scene I’m talking about on youtube, but if you watched the one I linked to, trust me, after John Cleese is done straightening everything out, Glover walks over to the bar, knocks back the shot and emits this awesome, lip-smacking exhale of satiation.)
Like animals—like animals—we laugh. But we giggle, too: hummed melodious giggles, spurred by tickles and pokes (Pillsbury Doughboy, anyone?). We inflect the hmm of thoughtfulness and it becomes skepticism. Like animals—animals—we growl.
I must warn you, once you start noticing backchannels, they are wonderful and distracting. Arielle and I are having some beers in our library, making recordings of these noises, incapable either of omitting backchannels or ignoring them. I tell her I learned that people wait about 700 milliseconds after hearing a low note of about 100 milliseconds to voice one. I pause fractionally and she fills the gap with an um-hmm—completely on autopilot. I discover a bias toward right in my own speech. The proffered backchannel says: I am listening to you and you’re not insane. It says that rhythm is essential to dialogue.
Representations of which often leave much to be desired. I remember that one of the nasty things people would do when George W. Bush was President was reproduce verbatim his speech to emphasize its clumsiness. Of course he was a bad speaker, but a verbatim transcript of anyone’s language is invariably the written equivalent of the first HD cameras making luminous and unignorable the caked-on makeup and cratering pores of TV personalities. For the most part, it’s a miracle that any of us are ever understood. We speak in dizzied ill grammar. We’re experts at filling-in each other’s lacunae. We slosh about in a rain of fragments and change case and tense at the drop of a hat. It’s a mess. Or it isn’t. It’s an inimitable solo. Your voice is a singular instrument, and when you play it, I weave in my rights, my uh-huhs, to say I hear you, you make sense, because conversationalists duet better.
You can make how about that? with an uptilted hum, like a jaunty fedora: the audible equivalent of a cocked eyebrow. You can do I don’t get it, I’m exhausted and, maybe my favorite, I didn’t mean to do that. We compared notes and decided Nicholson Baker, author of The Mezzanine, was right when he noted that women say “Oops” and men say “Oop.” Louis C.K. nailed it, too, riffing on those moments when you say nothing at all. You enter an occupied elevator, go to press a button and realize it’s already been activated. What noise do you make? And what the hell does that mean?
An occupied elevator is a weird sort of audience, isn’t it? It’s either no stage or all stage. And that stuff matters! Only the most self-centered person in the world would let fly the backchannels as a student in a classroom during a lecture, but as soon as the professor is responding to a particular question, that questioner often feels swept up by a tide of um-hmms and yeahs. A little reaction is O.K., though, at a poetry recital, and encouraged during a certain kind of church service. We’re informed by the rules of wherever we are.
Masters of prose dialogue are praised for their ears, their uncanny knack for translating the spoken word into print. Elmore Leonard’s got shelves full of these accolades. So does Richard Price. An audacious actor might salt her silences with backchannels, but they’re only ever given the scantest role in books, which substitute tag lines. I remember a sequence of dialogue in Don Delillo’s Endzone: two college football players in earnest, worldly discussion in their dorm room. Delillo’s not much for the tag line—preferring to make his readers pay closer attention—but he deploys a whip-sharp “he said” after a short sentence and it stood out. At the time I’d thought he did it for the rhythm, and I still do. But now I know it was also a stand-in for um-hmm.
Arielle recalls that one of her favored tactics is to isolate me in my speech: to let me go on and on in silence. She’ll stare at me, unblinking, with a slightly suspicious look, as if she is a five-year-old girl and I am a benign stranger. I will keep talking, becoming amused, feeling odd. She will deprive me of yeah, and O.K. until I am crutchless, unsupported, a guy talking-slash-dragging himself across the parched mesa of her silence. It’s funny because it’s true.