The English idiom ‘What am I like?’ is a rhetorical question (one we don’t need anybody to answer) that we ask ourselves out loud when we do something a little bit silly – usually in a public place. It has the same sort of meaning as when Homer says ‘Doh!’ in The Simpsons.
For example, at the supermarket you have paid and you’re walking away from the checkout, when the customer behind you calls you back and tells you that you’ve left a potato on the bagging area. You hurry back and collect your errant potato. To cover your embarrassment you say quickly, ‘Oh, thank you! Thanks. What am I like?’ The other customer smiles, but there is no need for them to reply. For example, we wouldn’t hear an exchange like this:
A – Hey! Excuse me! You’ve forgotten a potato.
B – What? Oh no! Thank you. Thanks so much. Oh, what am I like?
A – Well, it seems that you are rather forgetful, careless, and possibly living in a world of your own.
B – Er, thanks again.
We say ‘What am I like?’ in situations where we potentially look silly or odd in a public place. It puts a voice to our feeling of foolishness and awkwardness, and acknowledges publicly that we have done something ‘unusual’ and that we know about it – we are aware of it. To say nothing would be to create an unreal situation where there is an elephant in the room – an unacknowledged error or problem. This would be very uncomfortable for the typical English person, who tries to avoid awkward public situations. Making a joke about it – and making ourselves the butt of the joke – lightens the mood and takes the heat off – making it seem less awkward.
The typical English response to ‘What am I like?’ would be to smile and perhaps say ‘No problem’ or ‘Yes, I’m always doing that too!’ (showing empathy) if you are feeling more friendly. In any case, phatic (non-essential) communication – also called ‘small talk’ – eases the awks!
Note: this is not an investigation into your true nature: ‘What am I like?’ It’s unlikely we would ever need to ask this question about ourselves, unless we had lost our memory, or we were particularly vain and wanted to hear people eulogising us! In our version, we put more stress on ‘like’ and the intonation is downward at the end, rather than up, as in a normal question.
Other times when you could say ‘What am I like?’:
You get to work and realise you haven’t brought your lunch box
The waiter gives you the bill and you realise that you’ve forgotten your wallet – oops
In the supermarket you try to get a bag of flour down from a high shelf but it lands on the floor, making a huge mess
You are rushing to prepare dinner and you drop your favourite blue dinner plate, smashing it on the floor
You get home and realise that you have left the TV on all day by mistake
See if you can use this idiom in your daily life today! Leave a comment to tell us how you used it!
In this podcast we explore using the popular song Castle on the Hill by Ed Sheeran in an English class. We look at the use of tenses in the song – especially past simple, used to/would + infinitive, and present perfect.