I thought I knew everything about how people communicate with language, but I was proven wrong when learned of paralanguage, or vocalics .
It’s described as “a component of meta-communication that may modify meaning, give nuanced meaning, or convey emotion, by using techniques such as prosody (patterns of rhythm), pitch, volume, intonation, etc.” One aspect of vocalics is something called “paralinguistic respiration” exemplified by gasps, sighs, moans and groans, throat-clearing (ahem), and my favorite one, “mhm”.
I’ve got my “mhms” down to an art form. I can be on the phone and doing a crossword puzzle while someone goes on and on about their troubles. Whenever there is a brief gap in the conversation I simply throw in a timely “mhm” that fills the gap and allows the speaker to go on. I had my own tale of woe a few weeks ago when our furnace stopped working leaving our family wrapped in blankets to stay warm. I used paralanguage at great length when I called our HVAC technician to schedule a repair. I emitted a sigh of thanks when the dispatcher picked up the phone. Next, I let out a series of moans and groans, but they were not because I was having a pleasurable experience. Instead, I was expressing my pain because the HVAC Tech was booked until the following week. Next, I gasped loudly when I discovered how much the service call would cost me because I did not have an extended HVAC warranty. The dispatcher had to say some loud “ahems” as my thoughts drifted to the next week when my furnace would be back on and I could let out a sigh of relief. When I think about it, that HVAC dispatcher was almost as good at “mhms” as I am.