”Like, oh my God!..Like—totally.. Encino is like so bitchin’ .. There’s like the galleria.. And like all these like really great shoe stores.. I love going into like clothing stores and stuff… I like to buy the neatest mini-skirts and stuff ..Its like so bitchin’ cuz like everybody’s like super-super nice… Its like so bitchin’…”—Frank Zappa’s song “Valley Girl”, 1982

JACK KEROUAC IKE BUTTON/Image: Michael Moffa

If you ever have to sit through an interview or a phone conversation with an otherwise highly intelligent applicant who nonetheless has chosen to talk like a California Valley Girl (or Boy), blame, of course, California and the hippie/yuppie-era rock guitarist, composer and band-boss Frank Zappa. But don’t stop there.

The Historical Root of, Like, Evil

According to www.museumstuff.com, the root of this grating, seeming evil is buried farther back in cultural and linguistic history than 1982—the year “Valley Girl” debuted. Cited as likely co-culprits are Bob Denver, who portrayed beatnik Maynard Krebs on the 1959-1963 hit TV series, “Dobie Gillis”; Anthony Burgess, in whose 1962 dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange the line “I, like, didn’t say anything” appears; the average “Beat” poet of the 1950s; and, going even farther back and farther afield, you can blame a 1928 cartoon in the otherwise staid New Yorker Magazine, in which one woman says to another, in reply to a query about the digs of a male acquaintance, “No, he’s got like a loft.”

How many interviews or other conversations have you had with job applicants that consist, (at least) on their side, mostly of the phrase “I’m like…” sprinkled with an occasional other word to provide a semblance of binder and content?

“I’m Like” Is, You Know, Annoying

My own anecdotal data gathered since I returned to North America from years in China 2­+ months ago are street-based and stunning: The quotative (a grammatical marker preceding something quoted or approximately quoted) “I’m like…” begins virtually every overheard sentence in three uttered by Vancouver city-core pedestrians who are young enough to hear each other. Really.

Repetitively strung together like beads in a low-level liberal arts-and-crafts necklace, these “I’m like…”s would, if I responded viscerally in any interview I might conduct, be a noose that puts an abrupt end to the applicant’s chances, if not the interview itself.

As an irritating distraction, “I’m like” is worse than Hollywood celebrity unconsciously evasive or insecure “you know”-peppered interviews (question mark optional). At least “you know” is an engaging filler, to the extent that it forces reflection on the question of whether one does or doesn’t know, why it would be presumed one knows, (or, alternatively) why the speaker may be doubting one knows and philosophically whether or not knowledge is “justified true belief”, simple coherence of belief or a metaphysically-induced illusion of some sort.

Motives as Habits in the Making—Explain It to the Stoners

“I’m like”, in contrast, seems, at first glance, just dumb. However, like most human behavior, it is also motivated and functional. It has to be motivated, given its cultural and conversational pervasiveness.

There is a behavioral psychology maxim that says, “Motives are habits in the making”. Hence, to dismiss “I’m like” as merely a bad habit or to circularly “explain” it as such is to offer the same kind of uninsightful and useless “explanation” travelers predictably elicit when asking questions such as “Why are you cannibals?”: “It’s our custom”.

Such explanations are always circular and therefore useless: “Why do you have this custom?”…”Oh, it’s our custom.”…”Why do you have this habit?” (e.g., smoking ganja, chewing betel nuts, stoning young girls to death)…”Oh, it’s just a habit.” (a response pattern I’ve encountered in most of the 48 countries I have traveled through and/or lived in). Habits have origins, which, of course, cannot be the habit itself. But try explaining that to someone with the habit of stoning or being stoned 24/7.

Because the exasperating frequency and longevity of “I’m like…”, e.g., “whatever!”, must be motivated, fathoming that motivation—as is the case in fathoming the motivation underlying anything—can perhaps be useful in the assessment of an applicant whose chances have not already been assessed as zero.

Understanding how, why, when and among whom the habit first appeared may facilitate some kind of diagnosis of this apparent disorder and prevention of its further pandemic-sized spread.

As for its functionality, clearly, “I’m like”, as a “meme” (a self-replicating unit of information), would not survive and spread like an African sickle-cell anemia gene (that protects 75% of its carriers from malaria, while killing the other 25%) without some social, cognitive or other payoffs. What could these possibly be, and how can they shape recruitment?

Functions of “I’m Like…”

By the 1990s, at the latest, “I’m like” was already a research topic in the academic linguistics literature, e.g., a 1990 Cornell University study, “I’m like, ‘Say What?!’: A New Quotative in American Oral Narrative. Based on my review of such research, I’ve reached the following conclusions about why “I’m like…”, “He’s like…” seem to have virtually displaced more conventional expressions such as “I feel…” and “He said…”.

These conclusions have important implications for the assessment of candidates, not only in terms of their probable interest in and susceptibility to pop-culture, but also with respect to their analytical inclinations and abilities, their ability or predisposition to read or communicate in writing, their capacity or taste for insightful observation and their predilections for “being in the moment”—at the “object level” of experience, instead of being in a more detached, observational “meta-level” state of elevated observation.

All of the following seem at least likely, if not clearly true:

1. I’m like…” facilitates raw presentation, instead of processed observation: The hippie-era stress on raw sensation, vivid experience, unanalyzed “let-it-all-hang-out” immediacy created, relative to what preceded it in America, a new cognitive style. Instead of reporting what they experienced, the LSD flower children presented those experiences, like love gifts and daisies in gun barrels, by recreating them as vividly as possible. “So, I dropped acid, and I’m like, ‘Wow!’”—visceral, vivid, vital: a reliving of a wow-in-the-now moment.

On analogy with the distinction drawn in linguistics between “use” and “mention” of language (“mention” meaning referring to the language, e.g., “love” is an English word, rather than actually using it, e.g., “I love you.”), the hippie cognitive style, for want of a better phrase, used the experience in its original, pure, innocent, childlike, sensually aware raw form; the analytical style, on the other hand, mentions it in a derivative, processed, reflective, intellectually aware way.

Contrast “I’m like, ‘Wow!’” with a more analytical, observational communication of that LSD experience: “So, I dropped acid, and felt a transient, probably dopamine-mediated euphoria suffused with a smug sense of transcendence of middle-class bourgeois values.” Even the simple traditional reporting of that experience as “I dropped acid and felt incredible” would have been for the flower generation too far removed from the pure (re)presentation conveyed by “I’m like, ‘Wow!’”

This is certainly not to say that the current use of “I’m like…” strongly correlates with drug use—especially since, as will be suggested below, “I’m like…” has other functions. However, even among total abstainers, use of the expression can be a marker for preferring to present or “showcase” one’s raw experience, instead of interpreting it or showcasing one’s meta-level understanding of and insight into that experience.

Think of “I’m like…” as a form of vivid show-and-tell presentation of unedited raw video footage instead of a polished processed newscast.

Nonetheless, a job applicant with this cognitive style may still be highly analytical. It can, however, be reasonably conjectured that what may be less likely is such an applicant’s having as strong a preference for meta-level, detached, observational, categorizing, analytical, highly structured, precisely written/closely read content and lengthy report/narrative formats as someone who never, ever says “I’m like…”

2. “I’m like….” replicates and validates passive, short-span modern movie and TV programming formats: It is well-known that, as is the case with other recreational drugs, one effect of watching a lot of TV is passivity and a shortening of attention spans, which, in turn requires teachers to not only be entertaining, but also to keep it short by having class breaks on analogy with TV commercials.

Similarly, MTV hyper-speed, small-chunk pop-music montages and the average action-movie plot and reflex-dependent video games pretty much totally disengage the observational, analytical functions of the brain while they are racing past the eye. “I’m like…..,” (insert passive recall of MTV montage experience, rather than some narrative description of its compact detailed content) ‘Ooo….Wow!’” replicates those unreflective formats, devoid of analysis and longer narratives.

For positions that require fast, less cerebrally-mediated responses and a preference for short-span tasks, such psychological characteristics could be an asset, e.g., in connection with some aspects of missile silo work or airborne Predator drone remote computer-based human guidance.

3. Like modern “up-speak”, “I’m like….” communicates a deliberate self-effacing, non-threatening tentativeness: Turning every statement into an annoying question is the essence of “up-speak”, e.g., “I bought a Prada bag yesterday?”—subliminally a request for approval, a tacit denial of boasting or—in some cases—a ditzy inability to recall anything.

“I’m like…” seems to have a similar function: Imagine an applicant who says, “I’m like really interested in this job.” Hmmm. He’s kind of, sort of interested in the job—perhaps not wanting to appear over-eager, or not wanting to be open to follow-up questions or commitments that could trip him up, such as the recruiter’s replying, “So then you are ready to sign a contract, yes?”

Like up-speak, “I’m like…” can usefully serve as endearing and prudent self-effacement: The applicant says, “I’m like, on the Dean’s List, have a 4.0 grade average, and I’m like, designing software in my basement that will cure cancer.” (Disingenuous) modesty equaled only by the more traditional standby “I’ve been told that I am…”

Fearful of rejection by a girl rather than by pushy acceptance by a company, the same applicant may be predisposed to say to her, “I’m like wondering whether you’d like to like hook up sometime.” Again, tactical, non-threatening tentativeness blended with self-protective modest expectations and objectives in an age of diffident, PC-constrained males—but this time to elicit and express, rather than to forestall, a commitment.

If this tentativeness is what is motivating an applicant’s “I’m like…”, it can be a positive sign of a genuine modesty, non-aggressiveness and a sensitive openness to the constructive feedback of  company associates. In this manifestation, it also need not constitute evidence of any deficiency in verbal expression, since, as is the case with the immediately preceding examples given, “I’m like” only supplements words, rather than supplanting them, e.g., “I am (like) wondering whether…”

This use of “I’m like” is clearly very different from its “now-wow!” function in hippie and, more recently, some New Age argot.  On the other hand, it overlaps the next function.

4. “I’m like…” declares and validates anti-elitism: The verbal unreflectiveness and imprecision conveyed by “I’m like….” and what usually follows it often constitute intentional and manifest anti-elitism—specifically anti-intellectual elitism (whose second reading, viz., elitism among anti-intellectuals, reveals a possible and paradoxical elitism among such presumed non-elitists).

Intensifying the grass-roots obvious anti-intellectualism that pervades pop-culture, modern mass-marketed and massive-scale education has created many intelligent, but all too often not highly intellectual students and graduates who cannot stop saying “I’m like…”. (I know lots of them.)

If you disagree, just test this idea: Ask any student who can’t stop saying “I’m like…” at any level, including undergraduate, M.A. and Ph.D. levels, how many books he or she owns that are not compulsory reading. My anecdotal professional and cultural evidence, including that gleaned from my own university and college teaching (outside the U.S.), suggests that number is generally smaller than a Kate Moss dress size. Allowing for more high-tech media, ask them how much purely intellectual, optional Net surfing he or she does.

I will be thrilled to be wrong about this and about why I think you may never hear anyone say, “I’m like really buying like a lot of books lately.”

One possible reason for such an anti-intellectual bias may be found in the reported broad decline over the decades in analytical, reading, grammar and writing skills among students and graduates at all levels.

If now-difficult reading and writing define the paradigm of intellectualism, it would not be at all surprising to see equally broad and emotionally defensive anti-writing, anti-reading, anti-intellectualism among precisely those students and graduates inadequately equipped to read and write or forced into now-standard remedial reading, writing and critical thinking courses. Forced to choose between feeling unprepared and feeling smug, who wouldn’t choose smug?

As part of that defensive reaction, it would be equally natural for these “I’m like”ers to view anyone who eschews the use of “I’m like” as a pedantic elitist and definitely not one of the boyz or girlz in the hood, much as someone who text messages “How are you?” instead of “How R U?” would be suspect and probably seen as “stuck-up”.

Like the iconic American egalitarian, leveling anti-hierarchy handshake, “I’m like…”, in this  anti-intellectual elitist application and manifestation, may be as American as apple pie–albeit an intellectually flattening, rather than physically fattening slice of American culture .

Based on this interpretation, one piece of advice for a recruiter is that if the applicant says “I’m like…” even once, it may be a good idea to ask or otherwise try to determine how passionate the applicant was about his or her major and what he or she has been reading or doing to keep abreast of the field—in the event the latter is relevant to the job. At the same time, as a recruiter, you should consider some of the other possibilities enumerated above.

The Out-of-Reach Off-Switch

Of course, if you or a job applicant can’t stop saying  “I’m like…” , it doesn’t mean you or he is dumb, stoned or illiterate, no matter how strongly speaking this way may suggest that you are to those who don’t.

Even those who rank among the intellectually motivated as well as gifted may end up speaking this way—at least with their age peers,  and under the influence of  these peers, the media, and their general linguistic and pop-cultural milieu, much as a lot of atheists will join the faithful in singing “Silent Night” under the mistletoe and over the eggnog.

Some of you may be able to turn the “I’m like…” switch on and off at will, like the Japanese who easily and abruptly  switch from their stiff, formal honorific language modes  to casual speech (and vice versa) according to the rank and age of those they are addressing. However, there are some, probably many, who cannot stifle “I’m like…”, including a local high school student who recently talked about it with me .

When I asked him about it, after noticing his repeated use of it in a matter of seconds, he told me that he has been trying to expunge it from his speech, but that he is still struggling to succeed.

Equally interesting and relevant was why he, one of his classmates and I were speaking in the first place: We started talking because we were all  stunned to overhear a customer tell the two East Indian counter staff, who were communicating with her in excellent English,  to speak English–to each other! (Because, she said, she wanted to know what they were saying between themselves and between sandwiches, as though she had a right to know that.)

Given that kind of evident intolerance, it can only be imagined how some people, perhaps including that customer, some college admissions officer or a job recruiter, may respond to endless strings of “I’m like..” as they wonder why they are not hearing English.

My guess is that there are many like that high school student, because I hear “I’m like…” mechanically fired off at a Gatling-gun clip almost every time I’m near anyone who is not alone and who is, like, younger than than Zappa’s song.

But, suppose intolerance for “I’m like…” is like that woman’s intolerance for other languages—cranky fussing over nothing. Still, even if it isn’t a big deal, what are the conceivable benefits in lacing an interview with it?

To find out what the experts think about it, I went to the top—and contacted Merriam-Webster (www.merriam-webster.com), the experts’ experts, directly.

The Word  on “I’m Like…” from Merriam-Webster Headquarters

In a personal email reply, Kory Stamper, Associate  Editor with Merriam-Webster, Inc and online M-W spokes-editor said (speaking of the modern usage of “I’m like” and “like”–as in “Like, that’s a good thing”), “Both of these ‘likes’ are castigated as being sloppy, improper, and incorrect, but as lexicographers, we feel that the issue is one of context rather than correctness.

“They are certainly well-established in spoken English, and they are appearing with increasing frequency in written and edited English.  In fact, a few of these uses of ‘like’ have been entered in our  Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.  That said, these ‘likes’ are very informal and should not be used in formal settings or documents.”

I would add, “or in conversation with anyone older than the 1982 song ‘Valley Girl’”–released in what, according to Stamper, Merriam-Webster files identify as the year  “I’m like” went linguistically mainstream.

Caution and Disclaimer

Interpreting any kind of speech pattern can be fraught with serious risks of misunderstanding. No specific interpretation among those given above is herein categorically recommended.

Side effects of discontinued use of “I’m like..” may include stuttering, mumbling, compulsive reading and writing, exaggerated gestures, general discomfort, feelings of social isolation and temporary aphasia. If continued use or disuse of “I’m like” produces any abnormal physical symptoms or social or mental discomfort, seek advice from your physician or, for probably faster results, from Kory Stamper at Merriam-Webster.

 



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