A matter of opinion

I feel like opinion pieces on the state of the language are getting more annoying all the time.

If you’re wondering where that came from, the answer is that I’ve just read a New York Times opinion piece published this weekend, in which the history professor Molly Worthen complains that young people preface everything they say with ‘I feel like’.

[They] don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

The contagion she’s talking about is relativism: we no longer deal in facts or principles, only personal feelings which brook no argument or disagreement. Also—although this might seem to be in tension with the first, ‘no arguing with my feelz’ point—we’re not willing to commit to our beliefs because we’re worried about causing offence. According to a student Worthen quotes, saying ‘I feel like X’ is ‘an effort to make our ideas more palatable to the other person’.

The student has a point. Hedging–using linguistic devices that reduce the strength of your commitment to a proposition—is often done for purposes of politeness, or in other words to make whatever you’re saying or doing ‘more palatable to the other person’. That’s why we often write something long-winded and tentative like ‘I was just wondering if you’d got my email’ rather than the blunter, slightly accusatory ‘did you get my email?’ Or respond to a caller we don’t know with ‘I think you’ve got the wrong number’ rather than just ‘wrong number!’

This is normal linguistic behaviour, and you might think it’s preferable to showing no consideration for anyone else’s feelings. But people who write opinion pieces on language (or give ‘expert’ advice on language) have got it into their heads that hedging is the enemy of effective communication. According to them, it’s clutter. It’s ‘weak’.  It detracts from your message and undermines your authority. And–not coincidentally–it’s the particular vice of women.

Opinion pieces on this subject invariably feature women who’ve seen the light and repented of their sins. They’ve cut down on ‘just‘ and taken ‘sorry‘ in hand. In Molly Worthen’s column there’s another quote from a student who’s trying to cure herself of ‘feel like’:

I’ve tried to check myself when I say that. I think it probably demeans the substance of what I’m trying to say.

In 2013, Jezebel ran a piece entitled ‘Ladies, what’s up with the “I feel like” verbal tic?’ The writer begins with a confession: she’s searched for the phrase ‘I feel like’ in her Gmail inbox, and been overwhelmed by the number of results. Her correspondence is full of sentences like, ‘I feel like I look too meek in my profile picture’. Or, ‘I feel like I’m being unhelpful’. She comments:

We are feeling so many feelings, and we are very aware that we are feeling these feelings.

Ah yes, feelings. As everyone knows, women are emotional creatures who talk endlessly about their feelings–whereas men by implication converse in a mixture of syllogisms and statistics. The writer suggests that ‘I feel like’ sounds ‘indulgent, verging on narcissistic’;

when I say “I feel like” I feel like (ha) a touchy-feely liberal girl who learned to talk about her feelings in school.

It’s this self-indulgent touchy-feeliness that bothers Molly Worthen. She downplays the association with women, saying that men in her classrooms also say ‘I feel like’ all the time. But she continually invokes the opposition between thinking and feeling, reason and emotion, which in western thought, as many feminists have pointed out, is gendered through and through. As Genevieve Lloyd puts it, ‘rationality has been conceived as transcendence of the feminine‘.

Worthen’s argument that we’ve become too touchy-feely rests largely on an observation about the contemporary use of words–that ‘feel like’ is now preferred to ‘think’–and on closer inspection this is linguistically naive. The phrase ‘I think’, which she takes to be both completely different from and self-evidently preferable to ‘I feel like’, actually does the same job: it too can be used as a hedge. So can other verbs of knowing or sensing, like ‘believe’, ‘understand’, ‘guess’, ‘imagine’, ‘see’, ‘hear’. We often use them to indicate that something we’re saying might be speculative, provisional, open to doubt or disagreement. (‘She’ll be 90 this year, I believe’. ‘I imagine you’ll want to put this on the agenda’.)  And then there’s ‘seem’, as in ‘it seems to me…’. It may sound a touch more formal, more the sort of thing a middle-aged academic would say, but otherwise, how exactly is prefacing a point with ‘it seems to me’ any different from beginning it with ‘I feel like’?

I suspect Worthen’s preference for ‘think’ reflects the simple idea that the core meaning of ‘think’ is about cognition whereas the core meaning of ‘feel (like)’ is about emotion. At one point she worries that ‘the more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning’. But that ship sailed long ago: when they’re used in the way she’s talking about, the sense-perception verbs ‘feel’, ‘see’ and ‘hear’ are metaphors for more complex cognitive processes. If you tell someone ‘I see what you mean’, you haven’t literally ‘seen’ anything, you have grasped the import of something. Similarly, many uses of ‘feel’ carry little or no trace of either the ‘touch’ or the ’emotion’ senses of the word–they are metaphors for inferring or judging (‘Members of the jury, you may feel that the prosecution’s evidence…’)

The Jezebel piece included various quotes from women repeating the same folk-theory about ‘I feel like’ privileging emotion over reason and inoffensiveness over rigorous argument.

It takes the teeth out of any argument you make and makes it okay for you to be wrong. Like you don’t have to stand by your opinion because it came from a temporary, emotional place. I use it a lot when I don’t want to offend anyone.

I feel like is used for girls to tentatively express their opinion in a nonthreatening way, in a way that can either be added on to or diminished depending on how the other person reacts to it.

Is it, in fact, for girls? The writer of the Jezebel piece contacted the linguist and blogger Mark Liberman to ask whether it was true that ‘I feel like’ is used mostly by women and millennials. Using data from a corpus of telephone conversations, Liberman found that the the short answer is ‘yes’: younger speakers use ‘I feel like’ more than older ones, and female speakers use it more than male ones. However, the gender gap is probably explained by something I’ve mentioned on this blog before—the tendency for young women to be linguistic trendsetters, adopting innovative ways of speaking before their male age-peers. If something really is a trend, the men will eventually catch up.

The alternative explanation—that women use ‘I feel like’ more because it’s a hedge and women hedge more—was not supported by the telephone corpus data, which suggest that men hedge just as much as women, they just use different linguistic forms to do it. For instance, men use ‘I guess’ more often than women. (Though not ‘I think’, where it’s the women who are slightly ahead.)

Most people are small-c conservatives when it comes to language: they rarely hail new usages with delight, and often spend decades denouncing them as abominations. What bothers me about this isn’t the reaction itself, it’s the accompanying tendency to construct elaborate justifications for it. Instead of just saying ‘I find this way of speaking annoying’, pundits insist that it’s a symptom of some larger social disease. Vocal fry is a sign that young women are throwing away all the gains of the last 50 years. ‘I feel like’ threatens the foundations of democracy because it’s ‘a means of avoiding rigorous debate’.

This is overblown nonsense, and it also has the effect of making the most innovative language-users, young people and especially young women, into objects of relentless criticism–and not only of their speech, but sometimes also of their character. Criticism which they internalize, as is illustrated in some of the quotes I’ve reproduced. When young women are worried that the way they express themselves demeans them, when they’re berating themselves for being ‘indulgent verging on narcissistic’, it might be time for the people who write this stuff to consider keeping their opinions to themselves.

 

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Guys and dudes

Some years ago in North Carolina, students taking a class on gender inequality designed a card that could be left in restaurants or shops where staff made a habit of addressing women as ‘(you) guys’. The card drew attention to the problems with that expression. As Sherryl Kleinman, who had taught the class, explained:

While being labeled “one of the guys” might make [women] feel included, it’s only a guise of inclusion, not the reality. If we were really included, we wouldn’t have to disappear into the word “guys.”

‘Guys’ is not the only offender here: women can also be addressed as ‘man’ and ‘dude’. And Kleinman is not alone in finding this problematic. Many feminists regard these address terms in the same way they regard words like ‘chairman’, which purport to include women but actually don’t (most English-speakers in most contexts interpret the –man suffix as meaning a male person rather than just a person). For Kleinman, the women who accept these appellations are displaying internalized sexism. They’re flattered to be treated as honorary men.

I don’t dispute that words like ‘chairman’ are sexist, but I think address terms like ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are a more complicated case. For one thing, they are slang, whereas words like ‘chairman’ belong to a formal, official register. One reason why –man words continue to be used is because of the belief that inclusive alternatives (like ‘chair’) are ‘incorrect’. By contrast, no one says ‘guys’ or ‘dude’ because they’ve been told to: these are colloquial terms which speakers have adopted for their own reasons. Whatever those reasons are, they’re unlikely to be the same ones that motivate the use of the generic masculine in formal contexts.

There’s a clue to the reasons in the observation that ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are most often used gender-inclusively when they’re being used to address people directly.* Addressing people directly brings the interpersonal function of language into the foreground: you’re choosing your words to say something about how you see yourself, the person you’re talking to, the situation you’re in and the relationship between you. In the case of greeting people, for instance, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen’ establishes a more formal and distant relationship than ‘hello, everyone’, or ‘hi there, folks’. And it’s not just a question of formality: different address terms convey other, more nuanced meanings. ‘Hi, guys’ is in the same informal territory as ‘hi there, folks’, but it’s not an exact equivalent. Like ‘folks’, ‘guys’ is relaxed and friendly, but where ‘folks’ has a warm vibe, ‘guys’ keeps things cool.

‘Dude’ is a similar case. In an article on the way it’s used in contemporary American English, Scott Kiesling argues that the attitude or stance ‘dude’ expresses is one of ‘cool solidarity’. Addressing someone as ‘dude’ suggests a solidary relationship between equals—friendship, camaraderie, mutual respect—but it does not imply intimacy or sexual interest. (A colleague’s students once told her that if a woman addresses a man as ‘dude’ that’s a clear sign she isn’t interested in dating him.) It’s casual rather than intense, nonchalant rather than passionate, cool rather than hot.

‘Dude’ is also ‘cool’ in the sense of ‘anti-establishment, rebellious, non-conformist’. It was first used as an address term in the 1930s by African American zoot-suiters and Mexican American pachucos (both subcultures known for sharp dressing—an earlier meaning of ‘dude’ was ‘dandy’), and since the 1980s it’s become associated with the surfers and slackers of the post-baby-boomer generation.

Kiesling’s research, conducted with students at the University of Pittsburgh, found that ‘dude’ was typically used between non-intimates of the same sex. It was used most frequently by men talking to other men, but the second most frequent ‘dude’-users were women talking to other women. Cross-sex uses, in either direction, were significantly less common. The purposes for which men and women used ‘dude’ were more similar than different. Men made much more use of it as a greeting (‘hey, dude’, ‘what’s up, dude’), but both sexes used it as a token of sympathy or commiseration (like an oral equivalent of the sad face emoji), and to soften the potential offensiveness of speech acts like criticisms and commands (‘dude, turn-signal!’)

Here I want to pause and make a general point about the relationship between language and gender. The fact that a linguistic form is used more by men than women, or vice-versa, does not justify the conclusion that what the form actually expresses is masculinity or femininity. In many cases, what the form directly expresses is what linguists call ‘stance’: an attitude, a feeling, a point of view. But since many attitudes and feelings are culturally coded as either ‘masculine’ (e.g. aggression) or ‘feminine’ (e.g. modesty), the forms which communicate them may acquire a secondary association with gender. This is how Kiesling approaches the meaning of ‘dude’. What ‘dude’ directly expresses is not masculinity, it’s cool solidarity. But it’s associated with masculinity (and used more frequently by men than women) because its primary meaning, cool solidarity, has been culturally coded as a ‘masculine’ attitude.

I’m making this slightly theoretical point because it helps to explain why I don’t agree with Sherryl Kleinman’s suggestion that women who use terms like ‘guys’ and ‘dude’ are trying to claim ‘honorary man’ status. Rather I agree with Scott Kiesling, who argues that women use ‘dude’ for the same reason men do: because they want to express cool solidarity—especially, the evidence suggests, with other women. Rather than displaying internalized sexism, they’re like the little girl who sometimes wants to play with toy cars rather than dolls. It’s not that she wants to be a boy, she just doesn’t see why girls shouldn’t play with cars.

The question feminists should be asking about women calling each other ‘dude’ or ‘you guys’ isn’t why they’re talking like men (they aren’t), it’s why they can only express cool solidarity with other women by using prototypically male address terms. Aren’t there any female terms that would serve their purpose just as well?

Thinking about that, the only serious candidate I could come up with was the African American ‘girl(friend)’. If we leave aside obscenities and formal titles, most of the terms used to address women in English are terms of endearment: ‘baby’, ‘cookie’, ‘darling’, ‘doll’, ‘duck’, ‘hen’, ‘honey’, ‘pet’, ‘sweetie’, and so on. When they’re used between female friends these terms convey intimacy rather than cool solidarity, and when they’re used to women by male non-intimates, they also convey that the addressee is being belittled, sexually objectified, or both. Either way, they don’t do the same job as ‘guys’ or ‘dude’. Or ‘bro’, ‘bruv’, ‘buddy’, ‘fella’, ‘mate’ and ‘pal’. The difference between ‘bro’ and ‘baby’ is like the difference between a fist-bump and a pat on the head. Perhaps that’s another reason why women have adopted male address terms: to avoid being patronized, infantilized and sexualized.

The abundance of male solidary address terms, and the dearth of female equivalents, speaks to the differing attitudes our culture has historically held towards male and female homosociality (i.e., same-sex, but non-sexual, relationships). As many feminists have observed, male homosocial relationships—forged in institutions like boys’ boarding schools, college fraternities, sports teams, the armed services, trades unions, Masonic lodges, etc.—are important for the functioning of patriarchal societies, and they’ve been celebrated in everything from folksongs to Hollywood blockbusters. Female homosociality, by contrast, has been hidden, trivialized and negatively stereotyped. Women have traditionally been taught to value heterosexual and family relationships above female friendships; they have also been portrayed as catty, quarrelsome and incapable of solidarity with other women.

On the other hand, women don’t experience the same pressure as men to keep their same-sex relationships ‘cool’. It’s OK for women to depend on one another emotionally; it’s OK for them to express affection both verbally and physically. For men, however, these ways of relating to other men are at odds with the norms of heterosexual masculinity. In her book Deep Secrets, the psychologist Niobe Way has documented the process whereby boys who, as young teenagers, would say without hesitation that they loved their closest male friends, turn away from intimate same-sex relationships as they progress through adolescence. They fear being labelled gay: ‘“no homo” becomes their mantra’, Way tells us. She also tells us that many of her subjects found the loss of their emotional connections with other men a deeply painful experience.

Though it is part of the apparatus that maintains men’s social dominance, the ‘be independent, be cool, no homo’ ethos evidently has costs for individual men. It also has costs for women, since men who subscribe to it see their girlfriends and female friends as the only acceptable source of emotional support.

But just as men sometimes want more intimacy in their friendships, women sometimes want to turn down the emotional temperature. Cool and casual has its attractions for both sexes. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If women want to be addressed as ‘guys’ and ‘dudes’ I’m not going to tell them they’re betraying the feminist cause. (Particularly if the alternative is being addressed as ‘babes’ and ‘dolls’.) In language as in life, you do your best with whatever you’ve got.

* Just to clarify (since the point has been raised on Twitter): I‘m not suggesting that all uses of ‘guy(s)’ and ‘dude’ are inclusive. When they’re used as address terms these words usually include women, but when they’re used for reference (‘the guys in the office’, ‘that dude who works in the coffee shop’) the reference will usually be understood as male-only.  There are some signs that may be changing, but for now, if you’re talking about people rather than directly to them, it’s still good feminist advice to go easy on the ‘guy’-talk.