What I Feel Like We’re Saying When We Say What We Feel Like

I love slang. Love it. One of the many great things about the internet is the constant newness of language. Slang phrases come and go within a week. Chat culture encourages throwaway acronyms: lol, ttyl, smdh, idk/idc. ALL-CAPS. Ridic abbreviations like totes, obvi, adorbz. YOLO, you know?

As an English major in college, I was always team descriptive grammar. Language changes so rapidly in Our Modern Age that holding too tightly to specific rules seems retrograde (The New Yorker’s diaeresis, I’m looking at you). Language is fun! Slang is even more fun.

When done well, it’s a rush.

Sometimes, though, the abbrevs and lols we trade back and forth online and IRL are less enjoyable and more unsettling.

I don’t remember when I first noticed it. Probably in a meeting at work, on some technical problem that had come up. “I feel like we should adjust the spreadsheet model to reflect the new assumption.” “I feel like it would be best to hold that training on Tuesday.” “I feel like a 4% increase is more realistic than 5%.”

It bothered me because it seemed tentative – it made me seem uncertain. Why was I talking about my feelings at work? Why was I expressing myself in terms of how I felt about something rather than what I thought (or, heaven forbid, what it actually was)? It made me think about gender and all the conflicting advice one receives on being a woman in the workplace. But I couldn’t stop saying it. Was it a way of couching my meaning? Adding an extra layer of kindness, distance or protection from the subject? Being passive-aggressive? And was it helping or hurting me?

This winter the New York Times described how young women tend to take the lead on introducing slang into popular culture and speech. The classic example is, like, the word like. You can blame it on valley girls, but according to the Times article, now men are more likely than women to use the word “like” in this way. It’s unclear why young women pioneer the way for males and older people, but they do. (See Mary HK Choi and Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s chat on The Hunger Games at The Awl for what you’ll be saying next.)

Over the last year I’ve noticed “I feel like…” more and more in other people’s speech. How did it sneak in? Once you start hearing it, you hear it everywhere. Male coworker? Check. Friend’s 40 year old boyfriend? Check.

You could interpret it as an emphasis on feelings and experience, a sort of post-modern de-emphasis of analytic thought. Maybe an emphasis on tolerance and pluralism – I’m not making a judgment; it’s just what I feel. Or even a post-postmodern balance between truth and relativism.

But perhaps it’s my own stereotyping that attributes the origin of this particular speech pattern to young women. Women be feeling things. But in a country where women still don’t have equal pay, navigating through it is tricky. If you’re not aggressive, you may not be taken seriously. If you’re too aggressive, you may be punished for being angry and unfeminine. I’m just a girl, right? In this context, presenting her opinions as feelings allows a woman to express bold statements and still reside within cultural expectations.

That might’ve been the point of my own frustration. It seems like a more powerful statement to say “It is” or even “I think it is” over “I feel like it is”. Being specific and factual rather than being emotional and speaking the truth from a place of strength. But as long as my point is made and taken seriously, does it matter that it’s couched in an intense expression of feeling? I’m able to come on strong without being domineering. In the end, it’s a way of getting my way while speaking from the comfort of gender stereotypes. Language subversion FTW!

So, young women of the world, let’s put our trend-setting powers to work. We made “like”, “I was all…” and “I feel like…” mainstream. Now let’s start with something really ridic. Goal for 2013? Your dad will be using it in HIS meetings.

Written by Alison Lytton

Alison is a regular blogger for The Wheelhouse. Follow Alison Lytton on Tumblr or Twitter for up-to-the-minute weather musings, pics of food and/or exotic travels and retweets of bad puns. In Alison’s wheelhouse, you’ll find reading the Internet, reading everything, local/seasonal eating, indie music, education technology and Chinese politics & culture.

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About Alison Lytton

Alison is a regular blogger for The Wheelhouse. Follow Alison Lytton on Tumblr or Twitter for up-to-the-minute weather musings, pics of food and/or exotic travels and retweets of bad puns. In Alison’s wheelhouse, you’ll find reading the Internet, reading everything, local/seasonal eating, indie music, education technology and Chinese politics & culture.