My Love Affair With "Like"

A couple of months ago, I spoke in front of a class taught by a crony of mine who teaches at a local university. The presentation went well — I thought — and the students asked questions that indicated that they'd been listening, and no one threw any rotten fruit in my direction and only one kid fell asleep. Afterward, my teacher friend told me that I'd done a good job, but that I had a tic that detracted from my credibility and air of authority: I have a horrible habit of punctuating my sentences with a billion uses of the word, "like."

Some of the students agreed.

"She says 'like' more often than a valley girl," remarked one. Another said it seemed as though I used to be smart, but that I'd immersed myself in web culture so much that my mind had melded with it (not true, although I do like to pretend that cats can talk and I wish I could respond to most things with a disgusted GIF).

After this was pointed out to me, I started feeling self-conscious about the way that I'd string sentences together. I'd hesitate to participate fully in certain conversations because I was afraid that I'd "like" my way into someone's "dumb" category. I've started paying attention to how I talk, and the students were right- I use the word "like" with embarrassing frequency. I've started paying attention to how other people talk as well, and it's amazing how many women who I know are very smart are similarly infected with like-itis.

Where does this come from? Why do we do this?

It's at least partially a nervous habit; because I hate wasting time, I talk very fast, sometimes almost as fast as the Micro Machines guy, and I gesticulate dramatically. It's difficult to dramatically gesticulate if you're constantly stopping to think, and like many in my generation, I have an inexplicable aversion to pausing for a gosh darn second to gather my thoughts and consider the best way to verbalize them. And so, like, my sentences, like, sound like this. And I, like, sound dumber than I actually am.

It's possible that all this like-ing is a nervous habit that has simultaneously inflicted an entire generation of women, but I'm starting to wonder if something more is at work.

We know that saying "like" excessively is not a linguistic style that leads to others to view us as intelligent people. At best, someone who notices that I say "like" a lot would just ignore it or see it as a benign cyst on my verbal communication skills. At worst, too much "like" can cause my audience to shut themselves off to the idea that I could possibly have a valid opinion or worthwhile thought; after all, I'm talking like a silly girl. If it looks like a ditz and walks like a ditz and talks like a ditz, then it probably is a ditz. I know this. I know what saying "like" is conveying to people. I'm just not thinking about it while I"m doing it, at least not consciously.

Since we know that saying "like" too much leads others to negatively judge our intelligence, maybe inserting "like" into a sentence is something that we do to purposefully make ourselves sound less intelligent and forceful and therefore less formidable than we actually are. We're sabotaging ourselves! Saying "I'm an aerospace engineer," or "I enjoy reading Don DeLillo" sounds much more intimidating than "I'm, like, an engineer," or "I enjoy reading, like, Don DeLillo."

Maybe women of my generation have been taught, through positive social reinforcement, that we're supposed to pepper our speech with meaningless modifiers that make us sounds a little less sure of ourselves, a little less credible. No one likes a show off or a know-it-all. Better temper your smart-talk with assurance to whoever you're speaking that you're not, like, a threat or anything. Any girl who's been teased for middle school nerdery has likely developed a long standing aversion for the feeling of being excluded for being too smart or opinionated. This is the way that socially acceptable people talk. This is the way that pretty people talk. Women are taught that it's more important to be pretty and socially accepted than it is to be smart. Ergo, like.

I've realized, in reflecting on the sting of understanding that the way I speak negatively influences people's perception of my worthiness to be listened to (regardless of the quality of my actual ideas), that it's time to expel "like" from my vocabulary. I'm beyond the age when being cool matters; I'll never be cool, no matter how much like a Valley Girl I sound when I speak. That's fine. We'd all do ourselves a favor to truly internalize the idea that what we say matters, that we don't need to pause and insert a dozen question marks into every sentence to make ourselves sound less sure of ourselves.

We're, like, better than that.