If you’ll, like, shut up, I’ll stop saying “like”

March 25, 2012 11:07 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

If you'll, like, shut up, I'll stop saying "like"

You're going to have a hard time believing this. Today, the Word Snob is going to defend the overuse of the word "like." 

"This," you say to yourself, "I've got to read to believe." 
So go freshen your drink, powder your nose, and settle in. Ready?
Obviously, like, saying "like" every other word is an evisceration of solid speech. It's an assault to the ears at worst, a cute annoyance at best. It's way too easy to attack, and I'm sure it's been done many times already. (I say "I'm sure" because I don't recall reading anything of the kind. But I would have skipped over it.) 
No, the Word Snob, exalting himself by using the third person for the second time already in only five paragraphs, as if he needs exaltation, won't dull his keen edge on such an ordinary potato. No, I won't. 
Instead, I'm going to identify from whence this speech hiccup, this vocal twitch, arises and, in a sense, defend it. In the process, I expect to skewer something far worse. And it just might be you, dear reader. You will have to be your own judge.
Long ago, on a dark and stormy morning, I visited my first meeting of Toastmasters International. It didn't seem international, as most of the people were Southern, with a sprinkling of what we here call Yankees. But it was in a Greek restaurant. I was immediately enthralled with the group and its approach. It has been one of the most worthwhile institutions to which I've ever been committed, and I've been committed to several. And I'm certain that Toastmasters International would say that my arrival on their shores has been equally beneficial to the institution, if not substantially more so. 
But I digress. Which is what I do. 
During that fateful first meeting, toward the end, the Ah Counter stood up. Now, I was already in love because the Grammarian had just given her report. (I fell in love with the job, not the girl). Then the Ah Counter stood and enumerated the number of times each person in the meeting, by name, punctuated his or her speech with "ah" – or "um" "you know" or, in recent years, "like." It's amazing how quickly this simple act, with a new Ah Counter reporting at every meeting, will remove these rudenesses from your speech. And it will also ruin you. It is no longer possible for me to listen to the orations of anyone, from the President of the United States all the way up to Miley Cyrus, without noticing how fantastically faltering each is. 
Thus armed, I then began to notice why we do it – or more accurately, when and why I would do it. 
The Ahs ended quickly and easily in my speechmaking during Toastmasters, as did my You Knows. But I became attuned to other circumstances in which they stubbornly remained. In ordinary conversations, especially of certain kinds with certain people, I said "ah" or "you know" to fill the silence and – here's the insight – to hold the floor. That's why most people do it. It's a way of saying, "I'm not finished … I've got a deeper point to make here that takes the rest of my sentence or a compound-complex sentence, or maybe, Heaven forbid, two sentences or even three, so please, DON'T BUTT IN YET!" It's a way of holding an arm out, or a hand up, to keep the madding crowd at bay.
That's it. And why does this happen sometimes and not others? It happens when you're with bad listeners. 
After Toastmasters most days, I would have long conversations with a very thoughtful friend and excellent listener. And I'm a good listener. When speaking, I could pause and not be interrupted. I was relaxed. I could speak many sentences, connected together, and make a deeper point. And so could she. There was no need to hold the floor with my favorite crutch, "you know." 
When were we joined by two or three cohorts, the tenor of the conversation changed. It got shallower and, I noticed as I dropped back a bit, bounced around like a pachinko ball, the topic changing willy-nilly. It was more animated but there was less in it. As the king said to Salieri, "too many notes." The "ahs" and "ums" and "likes" fell like, you know, rain. Each speaker was on edge, sensing at least two others in the wings waiting to pounce.
The same routinely happened at another friend's house. One night, frustrated, and emboldened by an evening beverage, I pointed it out. "Do you realize," I asked, "that we've, like, bounced from one topic to the next, and said, ah, barely a full sentence on any one of them?" Stunned silence – for a second and a half – and then the din returned. 
Two weeks later at the same house, oddly, we witnessed with awe and wonder a rare eclipse. Somehow emerged an energized and long discussion among a couple of conservatives and a couple of liberals on politics. It was tasty and satisfying, and I said so! (Sex, politics and religion are not topics to be avoided. They're the only things worth talking about.) We savored an actual exchange of ideas, heated yet respectful, and it involved forays in which one thoughtful fellow would be allowed to expound on an idea for several sentences at a time – without interruption. Conversational steak, not cotton candy – and very few Ahs.
So here's how we get rid of "likes." (You've read this far; you deserve your gift.) 
First, if you're the offender, awareness. More importantly for all of us, learn to listen. There's a beauty in what someone else has to say if we'll give them space. If more of us listened without coiling to strike, speakers wouldn't be so jumpy.
Are you the interrupter? Do you free-associate, burping in whatever impulse is triggered by the jingle you heard a nanosecond prior? Are you littering the aural atmosphere with vocal confetti? Are you chattering a crackly noise that should be filtered out somehow? Perhaps, dear reader, by you yourself?
If you aren't really listening and don't have something substantial to offer, don't. Shush. The silence might be, like, better.

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This post was written by Michael Byrd

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