(And Other Dangerous Distractions)

What if I were to, like, talk about how we use language? You would basically, like, get it, right? Like, it is not that difficult. Now, if you were to read what I have written to this point, and you assumed this was a serious effort on my part to engage the reader, you would probably toss the piece aside, scoff, and move on with your day. That is because no one writes like this. You just will not see it done. Yet many in society talk like this all of the time. Why? I use this space to explore why we use the word “like” in this way, as well as other poor language devices, and then examine why these linguistic distractions are dangerous for society.

The title of this piece is used in a rhetorical way. The word “like” being used in the context above isn’t actually a simile. A simile is a device of comparison: “The man is as brave as a lion.” Or “She eats like a bear.” We all use similes daily, and we use them properly. So why, then, do we use the word like in the other context? What is the point?

Well, there is no point. Like means nothing in this context. It is meant only as filler. I assume we all know what filler is: something of little to no importance that takes up space, a space that we do not want to exist. The bottom line is that we are afraid of the silence, the silence that exists in the abyss, the silence in between the lines. We are afraid because the silence may indicate we don’t know what we are talking about. Sometimes this is true, and we do not know what we are talking about or what we want to say regarding some topic. We need not be afraid of not knowing or not understanding something fully. This is perceived as a crucial weakness. That is the underlying problem that needs to be addressed.

It is not a weakness to understand that we do not know one thing or another. Ironically, this is a strength. Since the times of the Ancient Greeks, when this concept was codified by the philosopher Socrates, we have understood this to be true. The more you know, the more you realize how little you actually know. Wisdom comes with the realization that you know very little. This is the first step in realizing our weakness, as well as our potential for mental and intellectual strength. So, it is in fact ironic that many view the quiet space in their thoughts as weakness, for it is actually strength that lets us dwell in comfort in those spaces.

We may use other words to fill the spaces when speaking, such as the prevalent “umm,” but this is less egregious because its only purpose is as short filler. The word “like” is supposed to replace “umm” because it is a word that has linguistic significance already. Like is an actual word, where as “umm” is not. So, perhaps we sound more sophisticated and knowledgeable if we stop stuttering and using guttural caulk to fill the gaps, and instead use something to reinforce our syntactical structure. But like is not the tool we want. It does not provide the structure we think it does. This word is not used as a simile, and no one is fooled into thinking that it is. However, as obnoxious as the usage of this word has become, many in society have accepted it as such. People now use this phrase (and, as I will point out shortly, several others) to fill the dead space in their sentences, as well as the dead space in their intellectual and emotional edifices.

I have a seen a correlation of unhappiness and the use of like in conversation. That may seem strange or somewhat of a stretch. But consider it for a moment. If there is a lack of confidence in how you present yourself or your ideas, then you increase the chance of unhappiness creeping into your life. It is not a stretch that there is a correlation between emotional, intellectual, or physical confidence and happiness. People who are confident typically exude that confidence, and others recognize this as a source of happiness. That isn’t to say that it is the total picture of happiness, but happiness is not the subject of this essay. Having the confidence, maturity, and self-awareness to speak clearly and confidently – including the comfort of occupying some dead space – leads to happiness. Or it certainly increases the chances of it.

Dead space is where growth occurs. Consider meditation as an analogy. The quiet space, the non-judgmental space, is where the growth occurs. If we are always filling these gaps with something that does not belong there, then we never get the opportunity to see growth or self-assessment develop. Those who are not in a process of self-growth or self-assessment cannot maximize happiness. If you do not allow yourself the opportunity to understand yourself or your ideas – your honest ideas – then how can you be truly happy? This simply cannot be done by disallowing ourselves the room to be quiet or to be wrong. Also, how is it possible to be honest in this context? Honesty, once more, becomes an interrelated notion to growth, self-assessment, and happiness. Let us not pretend that we know what we do not by speaking in a way that block all avenues to this kind of enlightenment. Honestly, this brings up another linguistic device that causes suffering.

Honesty? Honestly, I’ll let you know

How many times recently have you heard someone tell you something and then add that they were “honest”? This rhetorical device is fascinating. “To be honest, I love that hair on you.” “I don’t really know how I feel about it, to be honest.” “Honestly…she could do better.” Why add this unhelpful phrase, unless of course we mean to emphasize that now we are being truthful, where as this was not the case before? The implication is clear enough: I usually lie, but this time I’m honest.

Is this really the case? Are people generally dishonest most of the time in conversation? I don’t think this is the case at all. Surely some people lie - and perhaps even lie most of the time – but most people do not form habits like this. So why, then, is it necessary to reassert your honesty if you are telling the truth anyway? The answer is twofold. One is that this is now used as another filler, similar to the use of like. The more pressing answer is the perception of the truth may be what is faltering. It stems from the listener, not the speaker. We perceive a collective disingenuousness among our peers and among strangers. It isn’t that we think our mother or sister or best friend finds us deceptive, but that society at large distrusts itself in conversation. We have come to a place where we do not necessarily believe in what others say - believe in other’s honesty or confidence. This is due to the fact that we can see through the facade of how people present themselves. Humans intuitively grasp sincerity, and we are ambivalent about claims that we perceive to be dishonest or incomplete. Instead of addressing each other on those terms, we all agree to participate in a piece of theater. This theater has us all as players in a social game, a game where we can pretend to be whomever we want. Think about Instagram or Facebook as an example of this. We know much of what we see is false, or at least idiosyncratic posturing. Perversely, we also pretend we do not care that people perceive us in some way or another. The theater piece includes the strange moment when we pretend we do not care about or notice the theater. It is this weird double mirror that buries people in a matrix of their own making, where reality is too far removed to recall easily. We deal with all of this by claiming honesty when we intend to be serious about some issue or another. It is truly fascinating. We are not normally liars, yet we make special note of when we are really serious. We are not confident in how people will perceive us, or our intentions. We have lost track of our confidence in each other, because we have buried the confidence that we had in ourselves. We only make this worse by living in a fabricated social world, like Leonardo Dicaprio in Inception (or Leo in Shutter Island). Imagine a world where we were confident to be honest about who we are, what we think, or how we mean for things to be. Imagine a world where expressing your fears and shortcomings honestly led to a growth of confidence in yourself, and a growth of confidence in each other and in society collectively. We have the power to dissolve the matrix around us. After all, we built it ourselves. The truth is we want to be honest with each other, and we want to believe each other with confidence and sincerity. We have to pay close attention to what we say, and we have to make a concerted effort not to get distracted by filler. It becomes dangerous. Do we really want to be puppets where, in a freakish turn of events, we pull our own strings? What a perplexing idea. It is obvious that language used in such a way – coupled with social media platforms – drives us further apart from each other, and inserts a wedge internally, making it difficult to become who we really want to become.

IDK About Abbreviations

Another concerning trend is the overuse of abbreviations. I’m thinking about examples like the following: Lol, Omg, Idk, Brb, Tbt, Mcm, Wyd, or Gtfo. I’m willing to bet that almost everybody reading this now in 2018 or 2019 knows most, if not all, of these expressions. Social media has allowed us to become more impersonal. It has driven us to become less sociable, ironically, and speak to each other in less memorable (and more nonsensical) ways. So what is wrong with shorthand, you ask? Haven’t we always abbreviated words and ideas to facilitate the ease of conversing? Yes, to some extent. Now, however, we do it so much that we forget how to speak and write in long form. It doesn’t facilitate us at all – it hinders us from communicating efficiently. This is something that follows the maxim “use it or lose it.” When we forget how to communicate in full form, we lose confidence in speaking to each other fully and honestly. Children who grow up knowing nothing other than iPhones with texts and videos are at an extreme disadvantage in learning to communicate with real meaning. The more verbal tools at our disposal, the better equipped we are at achieving a better understanding of each other and the lives we lead.

Is it really that big of a deal? Isn’t this just language evolving organically, as it has over and over in the past? Perhaps it is organic. Historian, Tony Judt, has bemoaned the problem of “privatizing” language like we have privatized so much else. Rejecting a communal language bond sets us further apart from one another. But this new trend seems communal enough. What about the problem of imposing language norms on the public, like the problem psychologist Jordan Peterson has been decrying in the last couple of years? Like Judt’s issue of privatizing, this too is a potent issue. But neither of those problems hit the mark here. It simply seems to be another step in the evolution of how we communicate. This time, though, we are not really communicating meaningfully at all. The truth is we type these abbreviations; we do not speak them. Therefore, we are left with few options for meaningful face-to-face interactions. And the cycle continues. We retreat back into the online, impersonal world where there is comfort and a semblance of confidence. Like in Plato’s cave, we see the dancing shadows on the wall as real. The scariest part, though, is that we know about the real world outside the cave. We just don’t care.

From Distraction to Danger

Imagine a world where knowledge was illegal. Books were illegal. Music, too, was illegal and films as well. You could never know your past, and so could never truly understand yourself or others. This is the premise of Ray Bradbury’s famous dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. Here, fireman start fires – not put them out. I often wonder if it would take a science fiction world – a Bradyburian world, a Huxleyan, an Orwellian – to jolt people from their slumber. As of now there is no impetus it seems for many people to understand their condition. It is not illegal now to speak or write poorly, or to be unhappy from a lack of confidence in these areas. And so many people continue to live in this self-induced matrix world. Social media has created a theater where we are encouraged to pose in a disingenuous existence, an existence that everyone knows is theater, but no one dares point out the nude emperor.

Surely this is hyperbolic, right? Can focusing on fixing our language really change so much of our lives for the better? I submit that it is an excellent start. After all, if banal filler negatively affects our confidence, and poor confidence decreases our happiness, and individual unhappiness decreases collective cohesion, then yes, I do believe that grasping our potential in this area is essential. These linguistic distractions can become dangerous to society, and they can wreak havoc on our psyches. Our psychological and emotional landscape has to be pruned like any other in order to maximize wellness. Faltering on language is an insidious way to slip. We do not often consider language a step in the staircase of happiness. I hope that I have shown that this is not the case.

We need to read more and to write more. We need to step into the silence, the unknown, and we need to be content with temporary discontent. The filler in our language is calcifying our intellectual movement, rendering us stiff and awkward. Opening ourselves up to mistakes, to embarrassment, to transparency – this provides a sort of intellectual and emotional lubrication to get the wheels turning again. From there we can build a strong individual house, a place of confidence, fulfillment, and happiness. And from individual houses arise communities. Happiness is not serenity. Happiness is accepting the struggle honestly and growing from it.

Let us move in that direction. We can forgo misuses of words and phrases such as “like” and “you know what I mean?” and “nah’m sayin?” and “or whatever.” Certain sentences should begin to grate on you upon hearing them uttered. “I was, like, at the store or whatever, and they were out of bread, you know what I mean? It’s like, okay, whatever, but I need some bread, lol, you know what I’m sayin?” The more we begin to notice these fatuous utterances the better off we will be in moving a different direction. I would suggest that the content of our conversations would improve also. We will have the confidence to have important discussions that matter for our future, both individually and collectively.

You may think that I have blown this out of proportion, and that we will all be just fine. There will not be an apocalypse. But that is an odd standard. I can only rebut this by offering the troubling trend I have seen over the last decade (at the very least). This is what I have described. I believe that something as seemingly insignificant as making our sentences stronger, more robust, more genuine, can leave us in a much better place. I mean, like, to be honest.