I have two teenagers of my own – one independent, tolerant soul, and one green with mortification at my mere presence in the company of his peers – and both with their own verbal crutches. I often have to bite my tongue to not constantly correct their likes, ahs, ums and ya’ knows. (e.g. “Ya know, mom, I can’t even believe you brought the dog to my soccer training and had to have every player like pet her?”)
The truth is, teenagers make for enlightening and heady company. I love being around them, even if they’d rather I made myself scarce. But the way teens communicate with all of those “likes, ya knows, totallys and whatevers” gives me pause. Where do they get this post “Valley girl” lexicon and why is it so pervasive?
Could it be that we are to blame?
Last week, I was fortunate to accompany a group of mostly female teenage writers – including my own young scribe – to a YA author reading in NYC, organized by a brilliant kids’ writing program called Writopia Lab. Moderated by David Levithan, prolific author and editor and publisher of The Hunger Games, the authors’ readings ranged from dystopian horror to middle school friendship fiction to an action adventure about sugar addicts aboard a cruise ship. All of it captivating, and all of it well read, and received.
It was my privilege to discuss the event with this bright bunch over burgers and veggie plates at Good Stuff Diner. When the inevitable topic of tattoos, piercings and parental opinions came up, an animated discussion ensued, flying freely from their Gen Z mouths and down our table of ten, rich with slang, verbal tics and hyperbole. All sentences seemed to begin with the teen-bonding four words, “My mom is like…”
My mom is like there is no way you are getting a skull tattoo on your wrist, or anywhere else on your God-given body
My mom is like you can get a double piercing, but none of those ratchet cartilage piercings.
My mom is like, wasn’t the blue hair enough?
My mom is like, whatever!
My mom is like your dad totally said no to the first earring, but ya know how he is… he might be okay with a second?
My mom is like I mean, I can’t even believe you would consider a tongue ring! You’ll like get a disease!
My mom is like super cool. She has a totally awesome butterfly tattoo on her wrist.
Wow. I was transfixed. And not just by the teenage ranting, or the fact that after 30 years of heeding my own mom’s advice, I had just gotten my own double piercing (Go me!). But the use of all of those filler words was “like, totally” dizzying! Yes, I admit to being guilty of too frequently injecting filler words into my own sentences, my main squeeze being starting every sentence with the word “So,” but, this was epidemic!
Apparently, the media has also taken notice - looking specifically a few years down the pike when these young girls become working women. Two recent commentaries on our lexicon and how it impacts women's credibility and success have run in the last week.
Fortune Magazine ran a commentary by Author Gina Barnett entitled, “Like, totally don't talk like this to get ahead in business?” offering advice on how to banish vocal fry, uptalking and other vocal tics that can undermine women's authority. Barnett says:
“Using your voice to convey confidence and authority is a challenge for everyone, of course, but it often has greater implications for women and can hurt their ability to influence and lead.”
And, on filler words:
“Filler (those repeated sounds like “um”) or so-called habit speech, such as “like” or “you know,” are very distracting and your audience must actively tune them out to follow your words.”
And, an article by former Google executive Ellen Leanse, “Google and Apple Alum Says Using This One Word Can Damage Your Credibility,” lays into the pervasive use of the word “just,” by women – a “permission” word, as in “I just wanted to say…” or “I’m just following up.”
“I am all about respectful communication. Yet I began to notice that "just" wasn't about being polite: it was a subtle message of subordination, of deference. Sometimes it was self-effacing. Sometimes even duplicitous. As I started really listening, I realized that striking it from a phrase almost always clarified and strengthened the message.”
Add “just” to the list!
On social media there has been a catfight over these two commentaries, and whether or not how women speak really matters. In her post “Just Talk How You Want, Ladies. Just, Okay?” writer Amanda Marcotte’s offers a dissenting view, and says there is no evidence showing that using words like “just” make listeners think women are weak.
Regardless of your position, how we communicate is entirely contagious and does affect how we are perceived. And, as parents, we have a responsibility. Our verbal influence on our kids translates profoundly into how they communicate – as teens and as adults. We need to teach them to find their own authentic voice -- to speak articulately, with confidence, and to say it like they mean it!
With that, here again, are my "Top 10 Tips to Say it LikeYou Mean it.”