Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Like, um, things just, you know, suck.

Ashley: I am on a boat!

Lulu: You are on a boat!

Ashley: It's weird chatting from a boat.

Lulu: Do we have any advice today?

Ashley: There's that person in Carolyn Hax's most recent live chat who was upset that her coworker used "like" all the time.

Like, wherever: I have a coworker who talks like a valley girl. I have to sit very close to her in the office and she talks...a lot. Every sentence usually contains at least 3 "likes" and 2 "you knows," and she talks very fast. It is starting to drive me crazy.

I am also a young, female professional. (we are about the same age.) I like this girl. She is very nice, and as far as I can tell, good at her job, as long as she is not talking. I would even like to be friends with her, possibly outside of work, but despite the fact that I find her stories/life/company interesting, I cannot stand to listen to her for more than 30 seconds. I don't catch any other words that come out of her mouth because my brain unconsciously goes to the repetitive "likes." It's very distracting in meetings. Sometimes I miss the jist of what she is saying completely.

Ladies of the world, give up the teeny bopper speak!!!

On the one hand, I am VERY conscious of my own speech these days, and I have almost completely eliminated the extraneous "likes" and "you knows." But I still have to sit near her and listen all day. Any advice on how I can 1) learn to hear what she is actually trying to say through the fog of poor word choice or 2) kindly and tactfully suggest she notice her bad habit? (is there a way to tap into her subconscious?)

Lulu: Ohmigod. At dinner on Sunday, my family were all spontaneously complaining about the young people today saying "like" too much! And casual swearing.

Ashley: Oh no. I do both!

Lulu: So do I! My dad was like, "If you drop the f-bomb all the time, you rob it of its power."

Ashley: Why do you want it to have power?

Lulu: I know, right? I was going to casually swear to make a point, but my eight-year-old cousin was there, and even I'm not that uncouth.

Ashley: Young people today!

Lulu: Young people today! Actually, this reminds me of that The Vine column recently, where a schoolteacher asked for parent-friendly alternatives to "sucks." Sars suggested "eats a bowl of bees."

Ashley: Ha.

Lulu: Also, I argued that "like" has a different shade of meaning than "said" when you say "I was like... he was like..." I was like, "It's not what you SAID, it's what you were LIKE."

Ashley: Right, it's more how you said it than what you said.

Lulu: Yeah, it's a paraphrase, or an attitude, e.g. "I was like, wtf", describes your manner and facial expresion!

Ashley: You can use it that way deliberately. That isn't the case here, though. It's the space-filler "like." "It was, like, thirty degrees out, so we, like..."

Lulu: Like "um." Right you are. What did Carolyn say?

Carolyn Hax: My inclination for helping you understand her better would be to make overtures toward friendship, but I can't advise that knowing she drives you nuts. In most cases, liking a person will help you get past (or at least regard with more forgiveness) the traits that drive you nuts, but this is a next-door colleague; if it doesn't work, you'll have to back out of a friendship with the person sitting next to you. Too much at stake there.

And, unless you're her boss and responsible for the way she represents the company, I don't think it's your place to coach her out of who she is. [...]

But maybe just posting this will be a PSA to anyone who, like, uses "like" in lieu of commas.

Lulu: Well, I basically agree with that. Although I'm not sure I agree that it's inherently a problem. I mean, a lot of people that I know use "like" that way, and so do I. It's basically transparent to me now.

Ashley: If you're actually using "like" every third word, that's a bit much, but everyone has verbal tics.

Lulu: Some people seem to place a lot of premium on speaking without hedges or "ums" or "likes", but those people? Speak so slooooowly. At least "like" is like "loading..." It lets you know there is more to come.

Ashley:: In the letter, the person mentioned that one of the problems was that the girl talked really fast.

Lulu: When you talk fast you need verbal pauses! Your brain can't keep up.

Ashley: My boyfriend, Galahad, can do it. He doesn't use "um" or "like," and still talks quickly.

Lulu: Truly, he is blessed.

Ashley: He trained himself to do it.

Lulu: So did the letter-writer. I think that's part of what bothers her so much; you hate what you see in yourself, or your former self. When she asks for "any advice on how to try to understand her," I don't think she actually wants it. I think she wants to find this woman difficult to understand because that makes her grown up! and mature!

Ashley: I do find that if I don't like someone, I find it more difficult to filter out their verbal tics, because i'm so focused on disliking them. It's just one more annoying thing. Whereas if i want to understand what someone is saying, verbal tics don't prevent me from doing so.

Lulu: Yeah. I guess I question the idea that everyone needs to speak perfectly. The judgement of any verbal tic as good or bad, mature or immature, educated or stupid is arbitrary, right? I mean there are good and bad speakers -- I'd rather listen to Patrick Stewart give a speech than a Real Housewife of Jersey or what have you -- but unless speaking to clients is a component of your job, the way you speak is irrelevant.

Ashley: Yep. If she had a stutter, all this would be unconscionable to say.

Lulu: I guess the idea is that you can't control a stutter.

Ashley: Some people really can't control the like-insertion though.

Lulu: Totally. A stutter is viewed as a speech impediment, and "like" is viewed as a lazy choice. I think people who have eradicated "like" from their vocabulary may be overestimating how easy it is for others, the same way parents with easy, quiet kids judge parents of hyperactive kids.

Ashley: Before "like" there was "um" and "er". Some people place different levels of importance on the like-business.

Lulu: Somebody later in the chat suggested they go to Toastmasters and learn public speaking together.

Ashley: Can you imagine how that conversation would go?

Lulu: Oh, this reminds me of something. Do you remember the Notmydesk about stuttering? He was critiquing an advice column!

Ashley: I don't remember it!

Lulu: Oh, it was a twitch. Still, I think it highlights an important point for both discussions. Learn about it and talk about it are both overreactions in this situation. Carolyn's right--let it go.


  1. We live in a very hedge-y, ironic time, where you don't just out and say what someone IS, you say what they're LIKE. It's evasive and kind of defensive. Even as a verbal tic.

    Say someone says: "She should, like, change her behavior." That statement has more force without the "like." The "like" is there to indicate that the proscription shouldn't be heard as really authoritative, more of a suggestion. The speaker is preemptively defending him or herself from being challenged. Am I making sense? The fact that we do this so widely as a culture (young kids today!) shows how reluctant we are to state things with 100% certainty. Which is kind of a good thing, isn't it? Acknowledging that we don't necessarily know everything? Maybe I'm like way off.

  2. That's certainly an argument that people have made; it's interesting because usually women's language is more hedge-y (more "I think she's on crack" instead of men's "She's totally on crack"), but with the introduction of "like," it's more universal (and I just had to delete "it's sort of more universal"! damn hedging!).

    I still think like is more like "um" - a filler word - although you're right that the choice of that particular filler word does seem to suggest more uncertainty.