Sit in a public place and listen to the twenty-somethings at a table near you. Count the filler words. We all have them no matter how many times we were told growing up that the job interview format is allergic to ‘ums’ and ‘uhs,’ , as are most situations that require our public speech or social performance. But there is another filler people of my generation are especially susceptible to, and that is ‘like.’ Unlike ‘um’ or ‘uh,’ ‘like’ is used not only as a means of comparison, not only as means of lightening the weight of a subject before it is introduced into conversation, but it also acts as its own punctuation (whose rules I will not try to determine here).
Some people are only moderate ‘like’ sayers until they get a few drinks in them. Some say it relentlessly. Some people, usually of previous generations, are able to go on a little bit longer, littering their conversation with their own fillers, which might consist of the phrase, ‘you know?’ or ‘you see?’ or ‘you see what I’m saying?’
The peculiar distinction between these fillers and ‘like’ is that they all suggest a desire to be understood, whereas ‘like’ seems to represent a constant insecurity about what is being communicated, without regard to whether or not the other person actually, at any point, understands (and usually when the listener foresees the meaning long before the meaning is actually arrived at).
I’ve always meant to be aware of what I’m saying and to clean my speech of unnecessary words, but a few days ago is when I actually had something akin to a spiritual experience with language. I heard a girl talking to her friend over coffee, struggling through ‘likes,’ the likes of which I’d seldom heard. There were ‘likes’ that had commas both before and after, it seemed. There were ‘likes’ that helped modify other ‘likes.’ There were ‘likes’ that needed turning hands and wheeling fingers to get their points across. There were ‘likes’ that might have been their own alien sentences with ellipses before and after. I could feel the ‘likes’ stealing the heat from her coffee. I could feel the ‘likes’ robbing her of moments she would never get back, all because she felt the need to explain herself with insufficient speech. The sad thing was, had it not been for the ‘likes,’ nothing she said sounded particularly stupid or unthoughtful. It occurred to me that no one else in the world really talks this way. Nevertheless, we North Americans press on through conversations that are killed by non-words before they ever even have the chance to get off the ground.
I set out to stop using the word where it isn’t appropriate. I’ve already failed. It’s a battle. I’ll not be entering any 12-step programs but will resolve myself to shrugging.
Not only do I think it’s important to emit the word from conversation for the sake of cleanliness, but I think speech patterns riddled with fillers are both representative of the thoughts that carry them while reciprocating that inability to articulate back into the brain. In other words, speech peppered continually with the word ‘like’ not only indicates one’s inability to think, but it trains one not to think.
Filler words can be caught like any virus, just like an idea, concept or a habit. By speaking to others in a way that doesn’t require thought, we teach others how to stop thinking. By composing our speech to not only an adequate level but a noble level, we train ourselves to be noble and provide an example for others.
Life after ‘like’ is not only a life after filler words—a life after ‘ums’ ‘uhs’ and ‘you knows’—but it’s also a life that seeks form and unity of expression.