April 19, 2018 – This is an essay about a couple of trends in the way people speak nowadays that makes them sound like they don't believe what they are saying. You have probably heard these speech affectations primarily from young people, but these speech patterns are becoming more widespread.
I am talking about two trends here, injecting the word “like” (or similar phrases such as “kind of” or “sort of”) before declarative statements, and the use of upward speech inflection (called “uptalk”) at the end of a declarative statement. Use of the word “like” tends to weaken the statement that follows, while uptalk makes the preceding statement seem like a question, even when it is the opposite of a question. Both of these speech practices tend to make strong statements seem weaker.
These two speaking affectations, sometimes used together, sometimes separately, make it seem like the person talking is unsure of what he or she says, even if they do happen to know what they are talking about and firmly believe in what they are saying. This is a deadly weakness for anyone who is speaking to an audience, trying to convince them to believe in the arguments the speaker makes. These rhetorically weak ways of speaking are also a problem for speakers seeking public office. In casual conversations among peers who share these same patterns of speech, presumably the believability problem is minimized or nonexistent.
I had thought that the use of the word “like” had declined somewhat in recent years, but maybe it has not. Recently heard an online interview with a young gun control activist, speaking about the fear of guns at a college she attends. She managed to squeeze the word “like” into her rapid speech at least 15 times in only 48 seconds. The same woman also uptalked at the same time. This use of like as a “filler word,” or embolalia, has been around a long time, dating back to at least the late 1950s (it was used by the popular beatnik TV character Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver, who would later go on to star in “Gilligan's Island”).
Another “filler phase” that is used a lot is composed of the words “you know.” Some people use this phrase a lot, perhaps unconsciously. Saying “you know” makes it seem that there are shared understandings or beliefs between speaker and listener. In a sense, saying “you know” after a statement makes it seem, rhetorically at least, that the statement itself is unassailable. It seems to me that even though it is just a filler phrase, it does tend to make the preceding statement rhetorically stronger. If you were to replace “you know” with either “kind of” or “sort of,” it would have the opposite effect. A noted public speaker who says “you know” a lot (along with “believe me” and “trust me”) is President Donald Trump.
I remember years ago working with a young sportswriter when I first realized she was using uptalk, making almost everything she said sound like a question. It was damned annoying, but I thought it was some kind of curious, isolated speech affectation. Now, I'm hearing it everywhere, even in political podcasts, used by young, smart, well-educated people who are trying to convince me that they know what they are talking about.
A recent BBC news magazine article, “The Unstoppable March of the Upward Inflection?” featured an image from the movie “Clueless” (1995). That film featured “Valley Girl” talk with lots of uptalk and “likes.” In the article, intrepid BBC journalists tried to track down the origins of uptalk, which seem to be as elusive as uptalk is pervasive.
Probably that BBC article is, unfortunately, correct, and that the advance of uptalk unstoppable, like spelling “under way” as “underway,” using modifiers with the word “unique” and referring to living people as “legends.”
Of course there are legitimate uses for modifiers like like. All I am saying is that if you are going to insert the word “like” (or “kind of” or “sort of”) into most sentences, and if you are going to speak that that uptalk inflection, or do both at once, you may have trouble being persuasive in some public interactions. These interactions may include attempts at persuasive public speaking, or advocating policy in public forums, persuading voters you meet to vote for you, etc. Like, good luck with that.
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