I recently heard a young woman speak at length, and she spoke just like this:
“I, like, think that maybe, um, I don’t know, I like might want to go here. Or like maybe if I were feeling, like, okay about this I, like, might want to sort of go there. You know?”
She was interlacing her speech with “like,” “sort of,” and “you know” at a pace of roughly three occurrences per sentence. Most of these occurrences were misuses of the word “like.”
Like: preposition: having the same characteristics or qualities as; similar to. Conjunction: in the same way that. Noun: used with reference to a person or thing of the same kind as another, or the things one likes or prefers. Adjective: having similar qualities or characteristics to another person or thing. Adverb: Used in speech as a meaningless filler or to signify the speaker’s uncertainty about an expression just used. Verb: find agreeable, enjoyable or satisfactory.
Sure, sometimes when I speak I toss one of those useless, lifeless “likes” in—a placeholder, a refusal to allow for a silence or a breath or any other possibility of a pause. I try very hard not to. Occasionally one of those babies slips out.
This was another animal entirely. This girl’s language was nigh unto unintelligible. I had to strain to sieve out the words that had meaning. It became painful to hear her speak.
I looked around. Did anyone else notice? They didn’t seem to.
I studied her. Did she know she was doing it? When I could parse meaning from the word salad tumbling from her mouth, and when I heard others who had known her reflecting on other things she had said, I knew she wasn’t dumb. She was bright, and deep and sensitive.
Since then I’ve noticed it in the speech of many a 20-something. It’s much worse than I remember it from my own young days. Every “like” hits me like a stinging pebble flung up from a spinning set of tires on a dirt road. Little shocks, over and over, like a dog being trained with the shock collar.
“So like I…” Ouch.
“And she’s like all like, ‘What?’” Ouch. Ouch!
My heart hurt for that lovely young person. I didn’t know her well enough to pull her aside and give her some motherly advice. If I had, it might have gone something like this:
Every time you drop a meaningless qualifier into your speech, you are apologizing. Stop it.
Stop apologizing for opening your mouth.
Stop worrying that if you pause, take a breath, or think while speaking, someone will be uncomfortable, perhaps even you.
Be uncomfortable instead of apologizing.
Every single time you weave in a useless “like,” you are suggesting that you’re not talking about the real thing, but a facsimile, and that you know you are doing this.
Every single time you drop a “you know” into the words you are using precious breath to suggest that if I don’t already know what you’re saying before you say it, it wasn’t worth saying.
Every single time you slip a “sort of” in before an adjective or a verb, you suggest—again—that what you are describing isn’t quite real. It’s sort of real.
In essence you are holding up a big, messy handwritten sign that says, “Please disregard everything I’m saying.”
Did you ever notice that men do not speak that way?
Here, I would pause to watch the dawning recognition—the rage that will surely bubble up if she recognizes that, despite all assurances that women are equal to men in all ways that matter, we are acting as our own oppressors when we apologize with every other word we speak.
We don’t need men to do it for us. And really, they don’t. Not most of them here in civilized society, not anymore. They are not the bad guys here.
We do it to ourselves.
We do it by spending inordinate sums on cosmetics, clothing, and women’s magazines in order to make ourselves more pleasing to men. We do it by giggling at the end of our sentences, or sometimes even in the middle.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t. Don’t mind me. I’m sorry. Am I bothering you? My voice is. Excuse me. I’m just for looking at.”
For God’s sake, I’d say to her.
Eradicate those useless syllables
like you’d eradicate an army of ants in your kitchen.
One at a time, if you have to.
For God’s sake,
use your words to create and share
a clear expression of what you think,
what you believe,
who you are.
Be wrong, then change your mind.
You get to do that as often as you like.
The world needs your clarity,
your unapologetic voice,
your beautiful spirit carried on your words.
This is an emergency.
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Assist. Ed: Linda Jockers/Ed: Brianna Bemel
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