In middle school and high school, saying “like” as a sentence filler seemed grown up, even a right of passage. Reality TV shows from “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” to “The Hills” showed us women who spent “likes” as they spent their money: endlessly and carelessly. Surely, these programs offered plenty of questionable messages to young girls everywhere: women are often sex toys, more money is more fun, natural bodies and faces must be fixed. However, in parental complaints and critical analyses about the dangers of such shows, the characters’ linguistic influence on developing adolescents is often neglected. As shown by teachers teaching second languages by playing TV shows or movies in another language, there is certainly a conventional awareness that children have unique ability to learn a non-native tongue through auditory influences. As such, the significant impact of Kim Kardashian’s and Lauren Conrad’s vernaculars on the highly impressionable minds and mouths of our insecure middle school selves should come as no shock. Even tweens, whose parental-regulated TV options consisted of The History Channel, war documentaries, and Animal Planet (such as myself), could not escape the osmosis-like cultural influence and awareness of Laguna Beach and Calabasas.
Most linguistic facets of our younger selves have fallen the way of temper tantrums and Tomagachi’s, allowing room for a matured understanding of implicit social rules and professional expectations. However, it seems that the use of the word “like” is not amongst the juvenile habits that have been successfully eliminated by English teachers and grammar-conscious parents. Au contraire, the use of “like” within our modern lexicon is not only continuing to grow in its space-taking form, but also beginning on a new etymological evolution.
Luckily, most Wesleyan students seem to have advanced from their mid-2000’s selves—wardrobes hipster-ified, braces removed, pubescent insecurities (mostly) resolved, and inspiration taken more from Foucault than Audrina Patridge. We have developed a cultural vocabulary and intellectual lexicon that enables us to speak with an ethos and eloquence that our younger selves likely lacked. If so many juvenile idiosyncrasies diminish with increasing age, why does the millennial “like” habit remain, and what does it mean for our future as vocal agents and semantic influencers?
The evaluation of our present culture’s constantly rushing, egotistical zeitgeist is one certainly acknowledged, perhaps to the point of cliche. We millennials are paradoxical characters: burdened by laziness and self-importance, yet constantly striving to efficiently multitask and addicted to the online scrutiny of others. We have become uniquely accustomed to the potential permanency and panoptic regulation of our personal opinions, shared photos, private communications, and public discourses. And unlike our parents as teenagers, the majority of our communication is done over text, email, and/or other online platforms. Even food-ordering apps like Grubhub and Domino’s, which ingeniously capitalize on norms of laziness and immediate gratification enable us to escape any unnecessary human interaction and vocal expenditure. A result of such modernization is our generation’s careless comfort with the written word (specifically the typed word), and awkwardness—even fear—of the spoken.
It seems that a habitual aversion to and self-conscious nervousness surrounding oral communication have formed an ideal breeding ground for the maturation of the “like” virus. In an elite academic setting such as Wesleyan, known to be a school of vocal activists and extroverted deliberators, the use of the word “like” in class discussions appears present and prevalent. Moreover, the excessive use of “like” even among students who appear confident and knowledgeable in their expressions, juxtaposed with the lack of “likes” by soft-spoken or relatively nervous teachers, further serves to support the notion of “like” as a generational phenomenon.
Whether or not one believes in the idea of a hidden mind or subconscious functioning, most can certainly agree that many of our behaviors are in some ways influenced by cultural and social factors. I do not mean to suggest that we are all secretly afraid of talking on the telephone, or that a habit of using like every other word necessarily indicates a Freudian response to the trauma of speaking in class. Instead, I am concerned that the perpetual use of “like” in both casual conversations and classroom commentary exposes a collective consequence of our development in the technological era.
Surely, there are more harmful and more significant problems faced by our generation in both academic and social settings. However trivial, it would be nonetheless worrisome to receive a lecture or explanation from a professor whose interesting claim was peppered with meaningless “likes.” Even a prime candidate for a job with an exceptional cover letter and suitable resume would severely deplete their chances if they “like”-bombed their interview.
While “like” may serve the same processing purpose as pausing or talking more slowly, its etymology and association with the anti-intellectual teen gives it a less than professional reputation. In addition to its aforementioned use as a space-filler, the word “like” has recently transformed into an action and a noun. Now, with the use of social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, you can display your “like,” as in affection, for a concept by physically engaging in the clicking of “like” button, to complete the action of “liking” a post or a photo. New idiomatic expressions, inspired by internet sharing and derived from the noun form of like, have become commonplace in the modern lexicon (imagine explaining the concept of “doing something for the likes” to a Facebook-less grandparent).
A sort of separating equilibrium, a systematic “trick” that ultimately leads people to reveal their true identities or understandings, is increasingly inherent in the semantic world of “like”; the concept of “likes” and “liking” and critical knowledge of how to give and get them, distinguishes the luddites from the adaptors, the hip from the lame, the followers from the ones to follow. Just as saying “like” once was once our badge of teenage angst, the verbal supplement to eye-rolling, a functional understanding and tactical usage of online “likes” has come to represent a similar symbol of youthful coolness.
As attention spans continue to shrink, and the platforms through which we express ourselves become exponentially populated, I predict that the ability to speak concisely and succinctly will become an increasingly valuable skill. What would it be like, if instead of worrying about the number of “likes” on our selfies, we practiced limiting the “likes” in our spoken sentences? True, the discomfort with verbal communication will not likely be alleviated, but for the sake of our reputation as educated forbearers of the globe, I’d like to try.
Solomon is a member of the class of 2018.