English language learners should beware of saying ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’

Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a popular indie band, but “Yeah, yeah, yeah” is a problematic response to job interview questions.

“In common use almost every word has many shades of meaning, and therefore needs to be interpreted by the context.”

-Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), British economist

Television personalities, celebrities, and basketball players often respond to questions with “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” In fact, there’s a popular indie band called the “Yeah Yeah Yeahs.” Many English language learners mimic this phrase, partly because they want to sound like the “typical” American. It’s a good instinct.

Reporters interview Michigan State basketball player Draymond Green during a practice in the basketball arena (cropped)

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


Yet this casual expression can also be a profound mistake in more formal settings, like job interviews. It’s one thing when a professional basketball player who has just scored 45 points in a game and makes $25 million a year, is asked “Do you feel good about your performance tonight?” It’s another when a student is asked a verifying question such as “You have been studying English for five years, correct?” saying “Yeah, yeah, yeah” in response can be viewed as disrespectful. This snappy response has become a personal pet peeve of mine when interviewing international students for their language skills. Perhaps they think they’re just confirming the fact in a casual manner. Alas, “yeah, yeah, yeah” sends a less friendly message.

I’ve often discussed the importance of informational interviews, and it would be a shame that a students’ misunderstanding could reflect unfavorably upon them to potential employers. “Yeah, yeah, yeah” can sound condescending and even snarky. (Snarky, by the way, denotes a sharp, cutting and caustic tone).

Context almost always counts. Let’s clearly distinguish the casual and professional setting to make students aware of boundaries. “Yeah, yeah, yeah” sounds perfect if you want to accept a friend’s invitation to a beach party. You can also inadvertently offend a potential employer by repeating the same phrase. Be aware; be careful.

What are some of your pet peeves in daily conversations? How do you teach the importance of tone in your English classes?

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