Dumb people say it. Smart people say it. Professionals say it. Hippies say it. Celebrities say it. Executives say it. Politicians say it.
It has invaded our English language and turned an entire generation of potentially deep thinkers into dangerously unopinionated feelers.
I am of course talking about “I feel like,” that verbal affectation I started to notice in my social circle–and my own language use–some months ago, and have since noticed everywhere, and almost always from people under the age of 35.
You can hear it almost anywhere you look, whether it’s on television, in movies, or in pretty much any casual conversation or workplace meeting. A quick Google Ngram search shows an explosion in the popularity of this phrase since 1960.
This phrase is almost never used to describe one’s feelings. It is almost exclusively used to describe an opinion. “I feel like that would look better in blue.” “I feel like the Republicans hate poor people.” “I feel like we should have a media strategy instead of a product strategy.” It is used when there is the slightest hint of disagreement, or any opinion is expressed that the speaker is uncertain about. In either case, it is used as a verbal softening: a way to have an opinion without having an opinion. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just feel like you’re wrong.” You can question my idea, but you can’t question my feelings.
Katie J.M. Baker over at Jezebel found that women use it more than men, although anecdotally I haven’t found that to be the case. Almost everyone I know uses it all the time, male or female. That said, she has an interesting explanation for why this verbal tic is so prevalent.
An “I feel like” preface implies that my feelings aren’t set in stone; they’re not necessarily rational or well thought-out. I strive to have faith that my opinions are worthy, but I don’t want to be the kind of person who is so convinced she has something important to say that she asserts every statement as fact, not feeling.
I have a theory that this phrase truly took hold in the feel-good, self-esteem driven, sharing-is-caring educational environment that permeated the 90’s childhood. We were always taught, in disagreement, to use personal “I” statements instead of accusatory “you” statements. For instance, if someone does something offensive to you, tell them how you felt affected, not how wrong they were. That way, we were taught, we would be better able to reach mutual understanding.
There is a legitimate point to be made for self-doubt and self-deprecation, especially regarding an opinion on an issue about which there are multiple points of view. It certainly makes the flow of conversation less confrontational and more nuanced. Ad hominems are much more difficult and arguably no longer ad hominems, for example, when you have to preface them with “I feel like,” as in: “I feel like you are an idiot.”
But what worries me about this phrase is how it has become a substitute for all disagreement, and a qualifier of any opinion. Instead of becoming more certain about ideas or beliefs we hold, we use verbal legalese to de-escalate our statements. Americans are becoming more willing to not understand their own opinions and to “feel” them out instead.
Even as someone who thinks people should say “I don’t know” a lot more often, I am troubled by the implications of this turn of phrase. For starters, there is such a thing as a right idea, and no amount of feeling is going to make up for credible evidence that an idea is right. Feeling something, instead of learning, knowing and expressing an opinion, is a cop-out: a way to avoid substantial debate to arrive at truth.
More importantly, by using “I feel like” to state opinions as well as facts, the speakers of our beloved language may very well start to lose the ability to distinguish the two. This is not an unfounded fear. In our society, we have an increasingly hard time understanding the difference between being offended and being right.
Justin P. McBrayer has examined this growing phenomenon, which if not caused by or causing, has certainly been helped along by our addiction to “I feel like” in everyday conversation.
The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct. That’s a hard thing to do. But we can’t sidestep the responsibilities that come with being human just because it’s hard.
He is right. It is hard work to understand the difference between feeling something and knowing something, between having an idea grounded in loosely assembled self-assurance, or a firm opinion grounded in evidence. Saying “I feel like” abrogates truth, and makes it easier to avoid doing the work of truly understanding an idea.
So let’s just stop saying it. We’ll all feel better for it.