Late last week, as I was driving home after work, a trip to the library, grocery shopping, and dinner and reading, one of my friends sent me a textbook message and, not wishing to do too much texting while driving, my reply was an enigmatic hmm. My friend, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, responded by asking me which hmmm it was, and when I queried my friend as to what was meant by this comment, I received a humorous list of definitions for hmmm:
“What does hmm mean?
- It can mean that someone is thinking about how to answer a question but hasn’t decided on a definite answer yet, and wants to let the person who asked the question know that they heard the question and are thinking about it.
- It can mean that someone doesn’t want to admit that they don’t know the answer to a question.
- It can mean that someone doesn’t want to answer a question.
- It can be used as a space-filler. If there’s a period of silence, for example, one could say ‘hmm’ to break the silence.
- It can also mean that someone is pondering something
- It can also be used to acknowledge something.
- Taking time to react
- meant to convey slight sarcasm about what was posted.
- oh really or “interesting I didn’t know that”, I wonder why that happened or something to ponder that they’re unsure
- Just a neutral response that usually doesn’t have meaning.
- “I don’t wish to express an opinion about what you said in your previous message.”
- “I don’t have a strong opinion or definitive response to your previous message.”
- “I’m thinking about your previous message.”
- I have an opinion.. but don’t want to tell you what it is. Person A: I believe in faeries
Person B: Hmm (secretly thinking.. Idiot).
- I don’t know what else to say
- I hate what you just said, that makes me mad, change the topic. . .
- will have to investigate?
- I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.
- I’m really surprised at that
- I’m driving, I probably shouldn’t (notice I didn’t say can’t) be texting while driving.”
In reflecting upon the subject, I realized that I used hmmm a lot both in my personal conversations and in my more short and cryptic text messages. To be honest, I tend not to like text messaging because I find typing on the phone to be very irksome and unpleasant and because I can type far faster on a regular keyboard and I know what I am saying far faster than most cell phones can figure it out. Recently while at dinner , I was impressed to see that a friend of mine had a small but functional keyboard attachment for her phone to use to type instead, something I will have to consider to make talking on the phone a more enjoyable task than it is at present. If any friends of mine wanted to communicate with me more on the phone, and have me say more than “hmmm,” I would not turn down such a gift either, it should be noted.
Beyond the matter of finding it greatly humorous that there could be so many ways to define hmmm, I was struck by what it meant as far as communication was concerned. These definitions are not, it should be noted, an exhaustive list, as there are certainly other ways the term could be used by others. They may not even be exhaustive as far as the way I use the term, but it is worthwhile to note that in looking at the list I use all of the meanings that are listed at one time or another, and this ambiguity makes it somewhat difficult for other people to understand what I mean in conversation. In fact, perhaps unsurprisingly for those aware of my generally layered use of communication as a whole , I often mean several of the meanings at once. For example, to take an example not at random, last night while I was driving from work on my way to visit my adorable CASA kiddo, I saw a message on a chi machine that claims an ability to help eliminate the uric acid that plagues me so , and my reply was a misspelled hmmm. Which of these did I mean? Several of them, in fact: #20 applies, as I was driving and not wishing to text message while driving, not least because there was a heavy police presence around at the time. The message as an acknowledgment, and probably also at least a little bit a statement to avoid expressing an opinion, as I tend to be a skeptic when it comes to machines that promise an aid to health, especially when it comes to ridding my body of excess uric acid as a result of my not particularly spectacularly functioning kidneys, which themselves are likely damaged as a result of both of my parents having kidney problems and because of an early childhood history of rape, which tends to cause damage to kidneys, unfortunately. Hmmm.
How many ways can one mean hmmm? In many ways the expression is a space filler, but unlike umm or other related fillers, it is not so much a nervous tick and a habit of speech that needs to be ruthlessly eliminated, but is instead a filler in conversation that serves to acknowledge the previous comment made and to at least buy time for a longer follow-up. Most of the uses of it are either an attempt to save face, or to allow someone else to save face by having a comment acknowledged that does not require a more substantial reply. It is often also an attempt to engage the other person in a subtle effort to determine how much of a rejoinder or response is necessary. Is it sufficient merely to acknowledge a comment, or does someone actually want to know what we think, not merely that we are paying attention to a message and are prepared to note it graciously and succinctly. As someone who is more than willing, at least verbally or in writing, to reply at great length to what others present me with, the use of hmmm often tends to lead to a great deal of concern on the part of those who are talking with me? Am I tired and not willing or able to provide my usual lengthy response? Am I driving and not wishing to get into an accident or risk a ticket for texting while driving? Do I think something is dubious or even ridiculous and do not want to comment on it at any great length? Sometimes more than one of the above is true, although I tend not to think that what others have to say is entirely ridiculous, unless I can sense that they are trying to deliberately tell a fantastic and crazy story.
Ambiguity can be both a friend and a foe of friendly conversation. If someone wants to avoid causing offense by giving one’s true thoughts, or telling those thoughts in a place and time that are not appropriate to hearing the full details, then ambiguity is a worthwhile way to preserve one’s own privacy and also respect the opinions of someone else, even where one does not agree with them. Certainly we could all use some respect, and the acknowledgement even without a more substantive reply is a far better response than the Nathanish fate of casting a message out into a black hole of silence with no reply at all. At times, though, ambiguity is less than pleasant, as it allows people to have mistaken ideas of what one thinks or feels, and that it relies upon the knowledge other people have of one’s context as to what one means. To be sure, at times it may not be safe to give a longer reply, but where it is safe and where circumstances permit, a longer conversation is definitely to be preferred to merely a short hmmm, that rather than inviting a long and pleasant conversation tends to encourage an awkward sort of silence and a discouragement of either further questions or comments.
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