In Bold Defense of “I Feel Like”

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Molly Worthen wants us to quit saying “I feel like.” It’s a provocative and punchy New York Times piece that almost had me convinced—if it weren’t for a funny feeling I got that she might only be feeling like “I feel like” was a bad thing. So I got to thinking.

Here’s some bold, “I feel like”-less assertions from her column.

‘“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.’

‘Most disturbing about “I feel like”: The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning.’

‘The phrase “I feel like” is a mundane … means of avoiding rigorous debate over structures of society that are hard to change.’

I completely DISAGREE.

Here’s why:

1) The author admits that language is always evolving. I assume she knows that meaning comes in the use, not in the words themselves. But then she immediately goes on to imply that, while in every other case a word’s evolution is benign, in this one special case, it “is not a harmless tic.” (This tic is SERIOUS. Like Orwellian serious!”)

Sorry, but it’s just a word, the meaning is evolving with common usage like every other word.

2) The author notes the global awareness and the empathy of Xers and Millennials—a reason for the way they’ve dialed back on intellectual bravado. But then she says it’s not actually humility, but hedging: we “feel” in order to remain on safe ground, as no one can attack our feelings the way they could challenge our thoughts.

Um, no. Is there anyone who actually thinks a sensible political comment that begins with “I feel like” has moved from the cognitive to the affective domains? That the speaker is using their heart or their gut instead of their mind? It’s perfectly clear to me that when a speaker omits “I feel like”, they are cognitively settled on their position, while when they include the phrase, they are expressing not their feelings, but their rather their uncertain, tentative thoughts. “I feel like” is a *wonderful* tool not for shutting down conversation, but for stoking it. If someone comes to me and says “If we elect Bernie Sanders, we’re asking for communism”, I will challenge that opinion if and only if *I feel* up to arguing with an alarmist partisan. However, if someone says “I feel like it’s odd that we’re seriously considering electing a socialist when we spent so much effort fighting communism”, *I feel like* I’m being invited into an actual exchange of ideas rather than a bunch of mindless sloganeering and line-towing.

3) The author assumes that our extra-cognitive faculties are less reliable than our intellectual faculties.

Nonsense. We’re just as capable of faulty reasoning as we are of getting our feelings mixed up. And besides, there is a fruitful interplay between our cognitive and affective faculties: I may like the content of what I’m hearing from a candidate, but still get a funny feeling about them based on how they carry themselves. Would it be shallow to disregard what they say about policy based on my funny feeling? Maybe a little. But “I feel like Sanders/Cruz/Whomever comes off a little bit out of touch with real people and their actual needs” might cause me to do some research to determine if the candidate is just kind of awkward, which I can live with, or if they’re consistently not hearing important segments of their constituency.

4) The author makes a last-ditch effort to appear concerned with actual feelings. There’s a shortage of feelings, apparently, because we’re “misusing” the word assigned to the affective domain.

Sorry, but we have a lot of other words at our disposal, and we can always make up new ones. We can describe our affective reaction to phenomena. People leave us frigid, cold, lukewarm, warm, fired up. Meals leave us satiated, content, bloated, hungry. There’s a gazillion words to describe subjective experience. Know them, love them, use them. We can “lose” *I feel* to the uncertain thinkers without losing the Republic.

5) Am I being a little too strident in my criticism of the author? Maybe. Perhaps I should have began a few of my sentences with *I feel like*—that would have made me come across as someone who is a linguistic non-expert who is curious to learn more. See how this works?

I feel like we should let language evolve, quit complaining when it does, use our imaginations to search for better words, warm up to the idea that some of the tics of Xers and Millennials might not only be harmless, but salutary, and welcome our actual feelings into the conversation alongside our tentative opinions and our settled conclusions.

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