In an op-ed that ran in The New York Times over the weekend, Molly Worthen, an author and assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examined the emergence and gaining popularity of “I feel like”—a form of verbal hedging that you have probably heard from yourself, your colleagues, or your friends at some point.
Worthen argues that "I feel like" needs to die—and that it has consequences beyond just mere annoyance:
In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for “I think” or “I believe” only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve, and curmudgeons like me are always taking umbrage at some new idiom. But make no mistake: “I feel like” is not a harmless tic. […] The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument—a muddle that has political consequences.
She makes some compelling points, particularly about how this turn to intuition or emotion in politics can harm attempts at productive conversation, turning them into a kind of performance that’s all gut, no data. (She's not wrong on this point; I remember going back and forth during one interview with a Rand Paul supporter in New Hampshire who said that she "felt like" the Kentucky senator supported abortion rights, even as I named the pieces of anti-abortion legislation that he had personally sponsored and voted for.)
Even so, I feel like something is missing from her case against "I feel like."
Beyond my general disinterest in tsk-tsking about evolving language—particularly when that language being critiqued is used frequently by young women (see: uptalk, vocal fry, "like," "um")—Worthen's piece didn't really engage with the reasons that people might be using this language.
Rather than being a “woolly” cop out, saying "I feel like" before asserting an opinion can actually be strategic. This is particularly true for women in the workplace, who may find this kind of couching language necessary to their professional survival.
Women tend to face negative social consequences for aggression—or even the appearance of aggression. This point was quantified in a recent study by Kieran Snyder, a linguist and the CEO of a data analytics company called Textio. In 2014, Snyder surveyed 248 performance reviews from 28 different companies and found that women were significantly more likely to receive critical feedback than men. And while both women and men were likely to receive constructive feedback in those critical reviews—like, say, a manager who needed to work on his or her ability to prioritize tasks—women received what Snyder called “sharper” criticism.
Here are a few examples of feedback that Snyder documented:
“You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”
“Your peers sometimes feel that you don’t leave them enough room. Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine.”
“The presentation ultimately went well. But along the way, we discovered many areas for improvement. You would have had an easier time if you had been less judgmental about R—‘s contributions from the beginning.”
“This kind of negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men,” Snyder wrote of her findings. “It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.”
Basically, women were penalized by their colleagues for being perceived as assertive. Their male colleagues were not.
This same dynamic plays out in negotiating. Four studies published by Harvard in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon found that managers penalized women for initiating salary negotiations, while their male peers didn't face similar consequences.
From the study: “[W]omen paid a higher social cost for initiating compensation negotiations than men, but only with male evaluators. Attempting to negotiate for higher compensation had no effect on men’s willingness to work with men, but it had a significantly negative effect on men’s willingness to work with women.”
As I have pointed out before, when it comes to the Lean In advice that is supposed to unlock the secrets to a better salary and career, the research indicates that deeply embedded cultural biases make it really, really hard for women to win that game. In response, women tend to self-police their tone to avoid these traps.
Personally, I say "I feel like" so that people don't think I sound bitchy or pushy when I'm making a point, but I also use it during interviews to keep the questions open-ended and acknowledge my own biases when they come up.
“I use it all the time,” one colleague told me of "I feel like." She uses it—ambivalently, she added—to "soften" her tone and to sound polite when giving people feedback.
Another colleague agreed that “I feel like” is useful in her work as an editor, particularly in de-escalating difficult conversations about a story in progress. “It strikes me as appropriate for tense conflict resolution-type situations,” she said.
There’s also an element of social penalty here—saying "I feel like" is a bitch-trap avoidance strategy, sure—but it's also a useful tool. Linguistic hedging can create space for dialogue, and make biases or uncertainty transparent when approaching conversations without a clear answer.
And, honestly, I feel like there's nothing wrong with that.