People who say “like” a lot are under constant attack by people who, I guess, do not. Not coincidentally, the people who say like tend to be non-men, an interesting fact that cannot be ignored in the study of why they do it. Much research has been conducted on the vocal tics of non-men and why they annoy us: saying “like,” saying “you know,” vocal fry, rising pitch at the end of sentences that are not questions, the list goes on.
The interjection of verbal tics seem to be among the speech patterns that trigger the most negative reactions; they supposedly make people sound air-headed or uncertain, or both, say linguists, because they are shying away from deliberately characterizing the thing they are talking about. Watching the Kavanaugh hearing was like, traumatizing? sounds less serious to them than Watching the Kavanaugh hearing was traumatizing. Fair, perhaps.
I myself am a sayer of “like,” and the cadence of how much I use it seems to go up and down depending on the number of people I’m around who also use it, either socially or at work. It’s not a habit I’m proud of, but it's also one I’ve been reluctant to come down on myself too hard for, since I don’t accept that I’m either an idiot or wanting for confidence when it comes to asserting myself. I’ve internalized some shame about it, but I’ve never made a really concerted effort to stop and generally find people who point it out to me to be incredibly annoying. Reason being, that most of the time I use it, it’s to achieve a different purpose than the above.
When I say “like,” it’s because I’m trying to put a pause in the conversation as I cast around for words to complete the rest of my thought. If I don’t throw a “like” in there to indicate that I’m trying to string a sentence together or that I'm still thinking, the other person—man or woman—hears the pause as “their turn to talk” and cuts me off, or worse, tries to finish my sentence for me.
Men and women have different speech patterns and habits culturally ingrained in them that even extend to online interactions, where there is technically no need for representation of gender at all. People simply love to interrupt women who are talking, to the point that one of the barriers to women reaching the higher echelons of certain industries are those industries’ interruption-based styles of communication.
Various publications have observed that saying “like” is a mostly Western habit; it seems highly unsurprising to me that Westerners are also characteristically more uncomfortable with silence. “Like” definitely stands in as a hesitation or half-measure of expression in order to feel out one’s audience before committing too strongly to a take, but in my case, and in the case of, I suspect, many others, it means: “I’m still thinking out the rest of this thought, please bear with me for a few seconds and don’t take the silence that comes next as an indication I’m done speaking or don’t know what to say.” It seems clear to me that I wouldn’t have to say “like” so much if I didn’t have to worry that other people were going to leap in with their thoughts and rob me of the opportunity to finish mine.
From this, an interesting solution for the “like”-haters emerges, that could help stem the tide of likes: If you don’t want women to say “like,” stop interrupting them all the time.