Katie J.M. Baker, "Ladies, What's Up With the 'I Feel Like' Verbal Tic?", Jezebel 8/23/2013
When I search my Gmail inbox for the phrase "I feel like," infinity results come up. "I feel like this particular story's very up your alley," a professional acquaintance wrote. "I feel like this might be the transitional stage to Federici's utopia," a woman in my book group joked. "I feel like I look too meek in my new profile pic," I worried to a friend. "I feel like I've done nothing of worth lately," another friend confided in me. "I feel like I'm being unhelpful." "I feel like it was important." "I feel like I have to reconcile my expectations."
We are feeling so many feelings, and we are very aware that we are feeling these feelings. But most young women I know are self-conscious about how often they qualify their emotions with "I feel like." If it's how we feel, do we need to drop an "I feel like" as a prelude to our feelings?
Here's what I don't like about "I feel like," a phrase I use constantly:
* It sounds a little indulgent, verging on narcissistic; when I say "I feel like" I feel like (ha) a touchy-feely liberal girl who learned to talk about her feelings in school.
* It evokes Carrie Bradshaw's pseudo-pensive "I couldn't help but wonder…"
* "I feel like" seems sheepish. I don't want to apologize for my feelings!
Ms. Baker wrote to me, and I did a few minutes of research to convince myself of two things: The idiom " I feel like" is indeed increasing in frequency, and its use is indeed gendered.
A common explanation for more frequent use by female speakers would be that they want to "soften" their assertions more than male speakers do; but an alternative explanation would be that female speakers are just in the lead of this linguistic change, as they often are. I told Baker that I favor the second explanation, as she reported in her post.
This morning, I did a few more minutes of research, which further supports the "females leading language change" hypothesis over "females not confident of their opinions" hypothesis.
One piece of evidence that "I feel like" is getting commoner comes from the Google Books ngram viewer:
Another piece of evidence comes from the LDC's collection of transcribed telephone conversations, which contains 26,151,602 words in 14,137 two-person conversations — 28,274 conversational sides — mostly collected around 2003. In that collection, the use of "I feel like" is age-graded. Here are the average frequencies per 10-minute conversational side (about 900 words on average):
|Age ≤ 30||Age 30-49||Age ≥ 50|
The rate of 0.126 per conversation translates to a rate of about 140 per million words, comparable in frequency to words like include, happened, culture, or miles. Presumably, a more recent sample focused on younger people would show continued growth in usage frequency.
The same collection provides evidence that use of "I feel like" is gendered — again the average frequency per conversational side (all ages):
This morning, I thought I'd take a look at a longer list of words and constructions that can be used to hedge statements, by identifying them as personal opinions or otherwise softening them. Again, these are the average frequencies per conversational side:
|I feel like||0.094||0.051|
|a little bit||0.330||0.367|
If we add these all up, we come up with 10.85 per conversational side for male speakers, vs. 10.20 per conversational side for female speaker, a different of about 6.3% in favor of the men. But as I noted a few years ago, the guys also produce a slightly larger number of words per conversation: about 6.4% more.
So summing it up, there's no evidence in these counts for any overall difference in "hedging" between men and women.
This supports my hypothesis that women use "I feel like" more than men simply because that phrase has been increasing sharply in frequency over the past few decades, and women are leading that trend, as they often do.
I should note that I'm not talking about "I feel like dancing" or "I feel like an idiot", bur rather about a usage that's mostly a somewhat more involved way to say "I think that" or "it seems to me". A few random examples from the LDC conversational corpus:
uh i am a parent and i have three teenagers and um i'm not very involved in the school system insofar as i don't go to uh parent teacher meetings um i do check regularly that my kids have done their homework but i- in general and this is um something i've thought a lot about lately i feel like um americans don't understand what a bargain they're getting in in public education
um i personally feel really uncomfortable with the idea of bombing the country um because we disagree with the leader um i feel like it's the job that the u.n. should handle as opposed to the united states and i feel like the u.n. has done an adequate jobs of an adequate job of arms inspections in the past and we should just turn it over to them
i was involved in a a relationship off and on for about ten years and uh uh initially it was very good but it would have been clear to even the most casual observer after awhile but it was just not going to work and was not going to be productive for me but um i stayed in it probably for another five or six years after that and um you know an off and on kind of thing but i feel like i probably wasted a lot of time in that you know i should have learned the lesson from the relationship taken that forward and gotten on with things but instead i hung on to it for for a really long time and i i think i lost some very valuable years of my life
This is by far the commonest sense of "I feel like" in that dataset, and from the examples that Katie Baker gives, I feel like it's the usage she was talking about as well.