Yes, I Do Know. Now Please Stop Asking!

There’s a new game in town. The rules are simple, it doesn’t cost a cent, and you can play it anywhere. The only equipment you need is a good sense of curiosity and a certain tolerance for compulsive behaviour. Because believe me, once you start playing, you won’t be able to stop.

To begin, turn on your television or radio. We’re not looking for scripted shows here. Ideally, you’ll want to find a conversation that’s fairly spontaneous. (Interviews are great for this.)

All tuned in? Got the popcorn? Good, now let me give you an example of what you’re listening for. This isn’t a direct quote but imagine, if you will, a local radio host stopping people outside the theatre and asking if they enjoyed the latest big-budget movie release. The average response might go something like this:
“Yes, Bill, I really did enjoy the latest, you know, action film. It had, you know, lots of action. And the chase scenes were, you know, pretty good too. I usually watch things like, you know, horror films, but this one was really, you know, interesting. You know?”

And there it is, the Golden Ticket that’s the prize in this game. It is (in case you missed it) the dreaded ‘you know,’ that conversational combination of rhetorical question and qualifier that seems to be everywhere these days.

I first noticed this ubiquitous verbal tic about a year ago on my nightly drive home from work. I always listen to the CBC and thoroughly enjoy the eclectic mix of subjects they cover. I forget the topic at hand, but suddenly I couldn’t help noticing that after every few words, the speaker threw in this verbal equivalent of a jellybean perched on top of a gingerbread house — interesting, somewhat decorative, but essentially useless as far as holding the structure together.

The experience was rather like finding a worm on the sidewalk after a heavy rain. Once you spot the first one, they seem to be everywhere.

At first, I thought this habit was confined to individuals who, for good or bad, really didn’t care about a reasonably coherent use of language. Sports figures seem to be especially fond of this little oral embellishment, and glamorous young television and movie stars throw it around with wild abandon.

And then it happened. The day when I realized this verbiage had invaded our culture more deeply than I thought. The speaker was a woman, middle-aged, and (hold on, here it comes) — a writer. Not just any writer, no. A writer who was being interviewed because she had just won a prize for her exceptional grace with language, her facility to weave words into beautiful tapestries for the mind and soul.

Yet there she was, refined, intelligent – and sprinkling her conversation with more ‘you knows’ than there are cat hairs on my sofa.

A prime example is an interview I heard the other day, in which a singer extolled the virtues of her latest work. In a period of just under two minutes, this charming young lady managed to squeeze a total of 33 ‘you knows’ into her conversation. Maybe not a world record, but impressive by any measure.

Big deal, you might say. What difference does it make? New Orleans is still sinking and the U.N. is pulling out of Darfur. We have bigger fish to fry.

True, but I think this phenomenon reveals an interesting facet of the communication age, namely the fact that, the more information that surrounds us, the less capable we seem to be of communicating with each other. Essentially, ‘you know’ has fallen into two categories of popular usage. The first is as a qualifier, a sort of alternate ‘for example.’ Let’s suppose that I want to give you some ideas on where to shop for a gift. A recently overheard conversation is a case in point: “You could try a, you know, department store or maybe a, you know, specialty shop.”

The second (and more telling) use is as a rhetorical question. Try this common phrasing: “We went to this restaurant, you know? And we had, like, the pasta, you know?”

I hear more and more people expressing themselves this way every day. But why, exactly, do we need to ask the question? Why do we feel the urge to confirm that our listener does, indeed, ‘know’ and that they understand the message we’re trying to get across?

Are we so uncertain of our ability to communicate that it’s become necessary to receive an affirmation of every idea we convey? Are we afraid that the person isn’t listening? Or worse, that there’s such a gap between expression and comprehension that our thoughts are being lost before they can cover the small amount of distance between our audience and us? Perhaps not.

Perhaps it’s just a passing phase, a modern catch phrase that will have its day then move along just like “groovy” and “cat’s pyjamas.” In the meantime, I listen to everyone from football players to famous authors peppering their conversation with earnest pleas for their listener to assure them that, yes, they do know. And I wonder just how much our ability to hear each other is being lost among the roar of the information superhighway.