A Conversation: All The Feels About 'Feel Like'

A few weeks ago The New York Times issued the latest directive on casual speech. The new targeted phrase? “I Feel Like." In a Week in Review op-ed the writer Molly Worthen, an author and professor at the University of South Carolina, told readers to stop using the phrase she described as used to state “vague intuition.”

“The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences,” she wrote.

People use the phrase as a way to protect themselves from conflict, she argues.

Yet here is the paradox: “I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks. When people cite feelings or personal experience, “you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,” Ms. Chai told me.
Beyond that, she suggested the overuse of the phrase is evidence of an overly self-focused culture more obsessed with emotions than with facts.

Is this the latest in a series of phrases women are told to cut from their language, like Sorry or Just? Or are we limiting our own potential to progress conversation through thoughtful fact based discussion?

We asked some Milk readers and authors to share their perspective on the topic.

I became aware of this expression's infiltration into my vernacular a few years ago. I think it was actually my husband who pointed out that in professional writing (emails, etc) that I should never use "I feel" and instead say "I think" or "I believe". Now I have gotten so into the habit of scrubbing that from my written communications but I doubt I am as vigilant about it in spoken language.

One of the other things I found interesting in the article is that it's not a gendered expression as much as i would think it is, according to research. But in my observation the way men and women use this expression has such different connotations. I think women use it to protect others from their assertions by making it a "feeling" and not a fact, and men use the expression to assert it as more of a power move "if i feel it it must be true" - this is purely my unscientific perspective, but i don't recall hearing many men say this in a passive way.”

-- Atlanta, 33

I "feel like" it is a gross overstatement to suggest that "the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks." I regularly use the term to emphasize that the subsequent sentiment is my interpretation; however, the other person with whom I am conversing still questions me. I do not have any way of assessing how often people push back on me when I start my statements with 'I feel" vs. if I did not use that phrase, but I can confidently say that it is a gross overstatement to suggest that it is an "absolutist trump card" and that it renders argumentation and discussion impossible.

I have no issue stating facts confidently and without any qualifiers. I do, however, prefer to say "I feel" or " I think" or in " my opinion" when the following statement is just that -- something I feel, think, or my own personal opinion. I think it is valuable to distinguish between actual facts and my own interpretations. In fact, I think doing so makes it easier for the other party to then push-back or offer their own personal interpretation of the facts.

I do agree this is basically another example of culture critiquing the way people speak, more often than not women. I have the same issue with "like." I say "like" to say "along the lines of." It most accurately reflects what I am actually attempting to say. Honestly, there are people dying all over the world and so much injustice. I can't believe that people can will themselves to spend this much time critiquing language and creating fake problems. Lets focus on the content of what people are saying and the ideas and solutions that they are exploring and offering and lets be grateful they are aware that these ideas are not fully baked and are using qualifiers to indicate that awareness. Lets not create problems by harping so much on language.

-- New York City, 25

I THINK (see what I did there) I overuse this phrase. What I actually do more is become uncomfortable with “awkward gaps at the end of sentences where I'll go "ya know what I mean. I don't know. Just a thought."

However, I brought this up with my coworkers (all male of course) at lunch. They actually referred to this "deferential" language as strategic power dynamics and a method of phrasing things to make others feel more important (e.g. phrasing something as a question when you know you're right and the client is wrong. We use a lot of qualifiers in the professional services world more for protection). Kind of ironic though that women are afraid of sounding too confident and yet men are confidently using this language strategically.”

-- Washington D.C., 28

I recall when the expression "I feel" was added to our vocabulary as a way to engage in non threatening interpersonal conflict. It was to be used when a child's/ a spouse's/ a coworker's behavior was inappropriate. Instead of going on the attack and blasting "you never listen to me", saying "I feel you never listen to me" turned the conflict into a chance to share emotions. In that context it remains an effective expression.

The issue is context and tone.

-- Cincinnati, 61

I've often heard the advice that in business, when you're talking to men, you should say "I think..." to be more persuasive, and "I feel..." to be more persuasive with women. So heteronormative! That said, I've definitely made an effort to remove both phrases from my lexicon (easier to do in writing than in speech) to avoid either bias.

Overall, I felt that the article misdiagnosed the issue at hand. Whether someone uses "I feel like..." doesn't seem to be the core issue, but rather the fact that students do not feel comfortable being vulnerable and making mistakes in their classrooms. Given how competitive our society has become, students seem to be using "I feel like" to buffer their fear of failure. In our hyper-competitive world, I've seen many talented young adults freeze in their tracks from making the wrong choice or decision. I would argue that overcoming fear and being vulnerable are the keys to enable students to "argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world" -- not "feel like."

My favorite part of the article was this: "In a healthy brain, emotional input is a crucial part of reasoning and decision making." I'd love to learn more about this! Also, I'd love to see how this connects to women as leaders.

-- Ann Arbor, 30

A journalism professor I had in college would interrupt any student who started a statement with "I feel like..." by saying "We don't care how you feel." Of course this has different implications in the context of journalism, but those words still come to mind when I find myself hedging statements I make. My journalism professor had a point-- if you're going to make a statement, then make a statement! But on the other hand, it is hard to ignore that speech patterns more typically associated with women are dissected in such a free and overt way. We've all seen the studies on female confidence and how poorly-received it is, so maybe we should spend more time focusing on the root of the problem rather than the speech patterns themselves."

-- New York City, 30

I think that the author here touches on a couple of good cultural points, but chooses instead to focus on a thinly veiled discussion that does "feel" gendered in a similar way to that around "just" and "sorry." I read this article when it came out a couple weeks ago, and since then have been more aware of myself and other saying "I feel like." To that end, I feel like* ( An "appropriate" comparative usage) I did after reading the articles telling me to stop apologizing or qualifying my statements: self-conscious of my own mode of expression. That doesn't seem to add value to me.

I like this NPR rebuttal. The author of that piece makes the point that this is a generational shift: "And however it strikes you at first, 'I feel like' isn't just about feelings, it's a way of introducing an opinion. I was talking with my students about online advertising the other day, and one of them said, 'I feel like you shouldn't have to see ads with paid content.' He wasn't saying 'that's my personal experience and I defy you contradict it.' He was just stating his view, and he was open to debating the point."

That the speaker indicates that he was open to debating the point lines up with Molly's point in "Sorry, Not Sorry For Saying Sorry, shouldn't we all speak with a little less dogma and a little more openness?

-- Atlanta, 29

I remember conflict mediation lessons in elementary school that taught us to use "I" and "me" phrases. "I feel like," "My feelings are hurt when," "I get upset when": sentence starters that allowed us to address personal issues without sounding accusatory and aggressive. So why wouldn't we naturally start to use these in wider discussions? Stating "I feel like Hillary will be an excellent president" doesn't shut down the discussion in the least. It certainly offers more of an invitation to converse than extremely declarative statements, which I usually hear from people who have no interest in debate and instead only want to hear themselves speak. Long story short: it's not the end of the world, NYT.

-- Chicago, 29

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