Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Michael Erard is a writer/journalist based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wired, the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Foreign Policy, the New Scientist, Lingua Franca, Legal Affairs, the Texas Observer, and other publications.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his book Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, and reported the following:
No one speaks sentences that look perfect when they're written down, and normal speaking is full of all sorts of hesitations, interruptions and other spontaneities that we'd probably want to be edited out of transcripts of our speech. I wrote Um... because I wanted to find how often these occur and why. I also wanted to know, Why do we notice more verbal blunders than others? And where on earth did we get the notion that our speech has to sound umless?

Um… gives readers lots of stuff they probably don't know, and that's what's happening on page 69. How are hesitations and interruptions in speaking useful to cops and interrogators? Unlike your high school speech teacher or your Toastmasters club buddies, these people LOVE that you pause, repeat yourself, and say "um." It's all useful information to them.

On page 69 the reader will have just met Gerry Giorgio, a famous NYPD homicide detective, who is renowned for his interrogation skills. People commonly think that you can tell whether someone is lying or telling the truth based on how fluent they are, but that's not a very reliable method. Giorgio doesn't go in for that. Rather, he listened to how people talk to monitor how stressed they are. In general, disfluencies tell us a lot about states (emotional states, psychological states) but aren't very reliable indicators of traits (personality, intelligence, honesty). So what Giorgio does is informally monitor the stress levels of people he hasn't arrested yet but from whom he wants to extract a confession. The higher the stress, the closer they are to confessing -- or potentially to walking out of his office, which he doesn't want them to do. Their speech gives him feedback about the edge he's making them walk.

I imagine that teenagers wouldn't get away with much in Giorgio's house.

Page 69 also introduces the reader to David Zulawski, an interrogation expert with other tips for extracting information about people from their disfluencies. He notes that verbal blunders, in themselves, aren't meaningful, but they have to be interpreted. That's a basic message of the book as a whole: Many of the meanings that are popularly ascribed to verbal blunders don't hold up scientifically.

Though page 69 might give a reader a sense of what the book's about, there are far funnier, quicker pages -- for samples, see pages 59 and 79, too.
Read an excerpt from Um… and learn more about the author and his writing at Michael Erard's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue