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The, like, epidemic

In middle school in England, my friends and I used to entertain ourselves by exchanging overdrawn imitations of the stereotypical American valley girl: “Let’s, like, go to the mall!” “OMG, I like, love, like, that shirt!” Feeling smug, I sniggered and mocked, certain I’d never actually talk that way.

So I was horrified a few weeks ago when I relistened to an interview I had done for a journalism assignment and discovered that the word “like” featured in almost every sentence. As I played back the recording, I hoped desperately that I’d start to sound the way I thought I had during the hour-long conversation: thoughtful, mature and articulate. I didn’t.


I barely recognized myself as I listened to that recording, and not just because it can be strange to hear your own voice. The word “like” had infected the way I spoke like a verbal chicken pox: an ugly, conspicuous blemish cropping up everywhere and anywhere. I unwittingly used it to fill pauses, link sentences together and modify words. I used it when I had something to say and when I had nothing to say. Worst of all, “like” had become so reflexive and entrenched in my speech pattern that I have no conscious memory of ever using it in the interview.

I am not an uncertain person. I am often passionate, and probably talk too much. So I never thought that I could come across as anything other than assertive and confident. I work hard in my written work to condense my points down to the essentials and not add needless filler words. Yet, clearly, my speech does not reflect this at all. That one little word made me sound young, uncertain and immediately less intelligent.

I don’t notice the word “like” much in a social setting, when chatting with friends. But in a more formal setting—in a class or a job interview—it becomes conspicuous and could have implications on the way we are perceived. Do we really want a verbal tic to compromise the content of our arguments or how respect-worthy we are deemed by our peers, professors and down the line, employers, clients, employees?

The “like” epidemic is rampant here on campus and throughout our generation. Our use of it as a conversation filler is infectious and mutually reinforcing —the more our friends use it, the more we use it and vice versa. Our brains are constantly adapting, subconsciously, to the patterns of speech we hear every day, helping us to fit into our environment and communicate more smoothly.

I’ve focused on the use of “like,” but there are other verbal trends creeping into our day-to-day communication. Alternative filler words such as “you know,” “um” or “literally” have also become common. Then there is “uptalk,” when intonation rises at the end of a sentence as if asking a question, or “vocal fry,” a raspy, Kesha-like tone that has recently been observed in women. Everyone picks up a different tendency.

There’s a chance I’m overreacting. Perhaps it is my British background that makes me so inclined to view these language trends as “bad habits.” Certain linguists have actually argued that modern vocal trends are important for defining a culture and for improving the fluency with which we interact, even asserting that “like” or “uptalking” are ways of becoming more relatable or assertive. However, the stereotype—especially for young women—remains that these language trends denote insecurity, silliness or immaturity. Despite the linguists’ academic arguments, social perception matters. I highly doubt that any job interviewer down the line would find my excessive use of “like” to be impressive.


Walking across campus over the past few weeks, I’ve made a point to listen in more closely on other people’s conversations, and I am both reassured and concerned that the majority heavily feature “like.” My similarity to others of my generation explains why my speech has become the way it is, but the incredible prevalence of our thoughtless speech habits also serves as a warning that we ought to be more aware of them. “Like” is at its heart a way of rushing through sentences somewhat thoughtlessly without pausing to deliberate. Perhaps this habit is a symptom of youth mixed with fast-paced modern life —of a generation-wide impatience that is only exacerbated by our ability to constantly check email and Facebook? I’m not sure, but that’s my working theory.

I’m glad I was shocked by the way I sounded in that interview, as it made me aware of the contrast between how differently I perceived myself when my speech was riddled with “likes” from the way I perceive myself as I write this article. It’s no easy feat to change an ingrained behavior, but I now make a point to try to pause and allow myself time to think about what I want to say, instead of instinctively filling the gap with “like.” Maybe if we all work together, we can beat the habit.

Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from North Hampton, N.H. She can be reached at

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