What Saying "Like" A Lot Says About You

by Elizabeth Ballou

So, like, it turns out that the way you, like, use certain words can, you know, say things about your, um, personality. Which, you know, makes sense, because, like, people who think about what they want to, like, say —

OK, I'm even driving myself crazy. But you see what I'm on about here: the way you make use of verbal fillers, such as "like," "you know," "I mean," and so on can signify specific personality traits. In a new study from the University of Texas at Austin, researchers discovered that people who use these fillers more often are more likely to consider what they want to say and how to say it.

By looking at 263 transcriptions from five studies, the researchers were able to break down these "linguistic crutches" into two types: filled pauses and discourse markers. Filled pauses are words like "um" and "ah," which, according to the study, everyone uses. However, discourse markers — "like" chief among them — can signify that the speaker is female, young, conscientious of his or her speech patterns, or a combination of those characteristics. In the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, the research group wrote:

The possible explanation for this association is that conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings. When having conversations with listeners, conscientious people use discourse markers, such as 'I mean' and 'you know' to imply their desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.

These findings put a new spin on what's often called "valley girl talk," usually in a derogatory manner that's associated with Karen from Mean Girls and Elle Woods from Legally Blonde.

The academic world tends to look down on it — I once had a TA who counted the number of times people in a discussion section let the word "like" slip their lips. When I was 8, my father sat my sister and me down and had a serious chat with us about why using "like" would ruin our futures. Our culture can attach some fairly serious stigmas to such a simple word, whether we realize it or not. But it may be time to rethink that stigma. After all, the study is essentially saying that people who use discourse markers are trying to make their thoughts as clear as possible to their conversation partners. Since these perceptions apply disproportionately to women, like other perceived verbal tics, moving towards a better understanding of such speech patterns could also be beneficial in preventing the "airhead" or "weak" stereotype that can get slapped onto female-gendered speech.

So when you're looking at the way you talk, don't necessarily be so hard on yourself if you are one of those people who uses discourse markers (I know I do!). It may just mean that you put a lot of effort into trying to articulate yourself. And in the end, who even cares as long as you're satisfied with what you say?

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