We are constantly being told to change the way we talk. For young adults in particular, the message is clear: Don't say that thing you want to say the way you want to say it — with a question mark at the end, with a vocal fry, with "like" or "just" or "sorry" anywhere in the sentence — because you won't be taken seriously. Or, at least, I feel like that's the message — but apparently that's, like, another thing I'm not supposed to say?
In a recent op-ed decrying the term "I feel like," New York Times contributor and academic Molly Worthen claims the increased use of the phrase in everyday speech is a sign of "the growing tyranny of feelings in the way Americans talk," a way of couching or qualifying certain viewpoints that threatens both logic and logical discourse.
According to Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, people's reliance on the phrase "says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument," which she believes informs our political process in a negative way.
It's clear from the start who we should blame for this particular "broad cultural contagion": millennials — specifically, millennial women.
The data suggests that young women use the phrase slightly more often than men, but in my own classes, male students begin almost every statement with "I feel like." The gender gap is vanishing because the cultural roots of this linguistic shift were never primarily a consequence of gender.
Today's college students have come of age in a time of growing diversity and political polarization. No one could blame them for wanting to back away from confrontation.
Adding that "today's college students have come of age in a time of growing diversity and political polarization," Worthen essentially attributes millennials' rampant use of "I feel like" to millennials being more diverse, open-minded and accepting of change than earlier generations, and so it makes sense we would use language that seems more open to myriad viewpoints — which, depending on who you ask, doesn't seem like such a bad thing.
Acknowledging that generational influence is Worthen's way of admitting that our speech patterns don't come out of nowhere and that they do depend on something: The way people talk is inevitably borne of social circumstance. That's especially true of those who have historically been stripped of power, like anyone who is not straight, white, rich or male — the people whose language is policed most often, a reality Worthen effectively ignores.
The way marginalization influences speech is something that gets left out of the argument against "I feel like" or other protective language. Writer Devon Maloney explained the relationship well in an interview with Jezebel: "When you live in a world that would prefer you not speak at all, of course you're going to couch whatever opinion you're trying to express in language that feels more protected." Prefacing one's opinions with "I feel like" or "I think" certainly falls into that category.
One of Worthen's primary concerns about using "I feel like" is that it can preclude arguing at all, and she's not entirely wrong: The term can reframe opinions as facts, which has proven to be problematic — at least in politics. In recent years, gut instinct has been used as a way to frame personal opinions (or the opinions of a fearful, powerful minority) as facts, which has in turn been used to justify political action that continues to keep the disenfranchised on the margins. Consider, for instance, the justifications for defunding Planned Parenthood, many of which have been predicated on conservative lawmakers' "feeling" about what the organization does or what the public wants, when the reality is much different.
But it's also crucial to keep in mind that the reason some people use "I feel like" is political as well. It's the direct result of certain voices long being silenced, of certain traits (like, um, "feeling") being dismissed as feminine. Criticizing people for saying "I feel like" raises the same issue as criticizing women who verbally punctuate declarative statements with question marks, or couch everything with an apology: We're critiquing the ways people have learned to talk around being told not to talk at all.
As Ann Friedman put it in what really should be the definitive piece on why we should stop policing the way women talk already, "Language is not always about making an argument or conveying information in the cleanest, simplest way possible. It's often about building relationships. It's about making yourself understood and trying to understand someone else." I feel like that's not the worst thing in the world, right?