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.