Does it irritate you when the person you talk with keeps interrupting with ”hmm” (or the Swedish equivalent ”mmm”)? Well, perhaps it shouldn’t. New research shows that the small noises we produce while talking with each other are pretty important components in showing that we understand the other person. Mattias Heldner, a professor of phonetics, has studied how prosody—the rhythm and melody in speech—is used in conversation. In his project ”Samtalets prosodi” (The prosody of conversation), he studied what connecting cues like ”ah, precis” (ah, precisely) and ”mmm” (hmm) mean for conversation.

”They are small and don’t seem like much and you hardly notice them, but if they’re in the wrong place, they are very disturbing,” Heldner says. In the study, researchers have analyzed 120 30-minute conversations between different people. Heldner identified that repeated hmm-ing in a conversation is disturbing. However, if a person doesn’t make any of these conversational noises at all, it creates uncertainty. ”If you’re someone’s boss and (speak with your employee) and give no connecting cue, it may seem like an ugly power trick. In a regular conversation, on the other hand, it just seems like you’re having communication difficulties.” These connective cues are equally important in phone conversations. But when you speak face to face to a person, there are other choices that can substitute these noises, such as nods and hand gestures, to show that you understand. So keep hmm-ing, it shows people you understand and care!