During some of our crisp January afternoons, I’ve been enjoying a steaming cup of peppermint tea al fresco at the neighborhood coffeehouse. Tables there are placed fairly close together, and I can’t help but overhear snippets of others’ conversations.

I’m fascinated by the twists and turns our language takes as we engage in one of the most challenging activities in life these days: communicating without benefit of any electronic go-between. Unlike the French, who have L’Académie française to dictate how la belle langue should be used, with Americans anything goes, and believe me it’s going — in what direction is anyone’s guess.

Recently I overheard two 20-something women at the next table talking. I wish a “like-ometer” had been invented to test my theory that they injected the word “like” into their conversation every three or four words, and in two very different contexts: (1) As a synonym for “thought” or “said,” as in, “I’m like, what happened?” 2) As a conversational lubricant, totally devoid of meaning, yet serving to keep the interaction going. “What are you, like, doing tonight?”

“Like” has taken center stage in many conversations for years, and from what I’ve heard, isn’t going anywhere soon.

An expression I frequently hear in a cafe or restaurant involves the server approaching me and asking, “Are you still workin’ on that?” I visualize myself trying to chop down a tree when all I’ve done is eat a salad. How about, “May I take your plate?” It sounds so much classier.

I wonder who started “no problem” as a response to patrons thanking a waitperson for good service. Who said there was a problem? Did I say there was a problem? Relax — there’s no problem except that you haven’t yet offered up a simple “You’re welcome” or thanked me for my patronage.

“Have a nice day” offered robotically at the end of a transaction appears to substitute for “Thank you” these days. “Nice” sounds a bit bland. I would much prefer to be wished a fun day, a terrific day or even a spectacular day. However, a sincere thanks would mean even more.

Incidentally, have you noticed that practically every positive experience is described as “cool” or “awesome” and every negative one by a word that used to be used to express what vacuums do? Apparently there is no gray area any more in human relations. Mea culpa. I have jumped on the cool/awesome/vacuum-action bandwagon big time in my conversation with others, mainly from a desire I guess to join the crowd and appear just a tiny bit, well, cool.

A couple other conversational no-nos:

  • The nonapology. Person A tells B he/she was hurt by B’s words or actions. B responds, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The nonapology absolves person B of any responsibility in the interaction. A gets the double whammy of being hurt and also accused in a thinly veiled way of being too sensitive.
  • The rationalization. “That’s the first time my dog has ever snarled at anybody. Sorry about that.” (Not!)

Speaking of saying you’re sorry: Sarah, the friendly barista at the neighborhood coffeeshop, told me that whenever a customer complains about the food or drink served, she replies with a sincere apology — no excuses —and asks how she can make it right. That’s a way to keep customers.

When I hear a word or phrase that is jarring to my ears, I remind myself that I’m not in the “correction” business. A friend of mine who also loves language says her father has a motto: “Don’t correct others’ speech.” I like the way he thinks.

Although the things I mentioned here may not enhance good communication, they don’t necessarily shut it down, either. However, the worst language offenses — yelling, name calling, labeling and the like, especially in front of others — usually do.

As the new year gets underway, I intend to develop a more mellow attitude toward these innocuous conversational bugaboos. After all, people are talking to each other, almost always with an intent to be respectful, and that in itself is a beautiful thing.

Barbara Russek would love to hear about your language pet peeves. Email her at Babette2@comcast.net