"I feel like"

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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
0.126 0.067 0.037

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):

Female Male
0.094 0.051

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:

Female Male
I feel like 0.094 0.051
seems 0.318 0.389
I guess 1.46 1.78
I believe 0.100 0.131
sort of 0.415 0.605
kind of 1.74 1.85
somewhat 0.028 0.043
a little bit 0.330 0.367
I think 3.85 3.66
probably 0.989 1.06
maybe 0.883 0.902

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.




  1. Stan Carey said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 7:28 am

    The hedging table is very interesting. Is it coincidental that the "I feel like" trend is occurring at more or less the same time as the surge in frequency of quotative "be (like)" and "all (like)"? Both of these are commonly used to convey not just direct/indirect quotations but attitudes and feelings.

    (Not wishing to digress, but I've noticed quotative "like" being used in a pretty interesting way in social media, where images are inserted into the grammar of e.g. tweets.)

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 8:19 am

    Stan, you mean the "When X, I'm like, [image]" use? There are whole tumblrs, many of them, built around that. Example: http://iwdwswcm.tumblr.com/ (this particular example is a meta-tumblr that randomly combines text from one with images from the other, but it was easy to find because it's my son's).

  3. Stan Carey said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    Rod: That's the one, sort of. It's not usually "When X" in the examples I've been seeing – the set-up is broader and less formulaic, but it hinges on essentially the same usage: I'm like + [image], or some variation on this.

    I follow a couple of Tumblrs with a similar conceit but without the I'm like/It's like frame, just the header and gif.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 10:37 am

    So females both "feel" AND "think" more frequently than males, but males "believe" more frequently than females. I'm sure there's an ingenious pop-evo-bio account of why conditions on the African savannah 20,000 years ago made this result inevitable, and I can't wait to read it.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    I note that the big upswing in "feel like" in the ngram results starts circa 1964 and further note that the MWDEU entry on "feel" says that that was the year Roy Copperud (via Webster's Dictionary of Usage and Style) noted but rejected peeves against using "feel" as a rough synonym for "believe" or "think" (which Copperud traced to a 1954 article in the Atlantic by Alice Hamilton, M.D., who of course deployed the usage she was deprecating at least once in the article).

  6. Benjamin said,

    August 24, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    I've noticed both myself and colleagues around my own age using this phrase to open sentences where we express an opinion that has a slight basis in fact but is mostly speculation. I think I only started using it in the past couple years, but I've definitely noticed an uptick in frequency.

    I wonder if there's a parallel increase in opening sentences with "I mean, …" even when you aren't clarifying an prior statement, something that's also fairly common in my social group.

  7. Colin Fine said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 8:54 am

    In Leo Rosten's "Captain Newman, M. D." (1963, set during WWII) there is this exchange (from memory) :

    Lieutenant : "I'm afraid not."
    Captain : "Don't be afraid! … They hear the words, not the platitude. Even 'I think' can get you in trouble with the compulsive neurotics. I recommend 'I feel'. Nobody can quarrel with how you feel."

  8. Eorrfu said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    My therapist corrects me every time I use I feel for I think. It is annoying but I do appreciate clarity when I have to talk to my wife.

  9. Lily said,

    August 25, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

    For what it's worth, in management circles, this is actually a taught tactic for providing input or feedback. The theory, however "Office Space" it seems, is that explicit acknowledgement of the subjective nature of the subsequent comment leaves an opening for discussion. It also doesn't require the opposing party to take ownership of your reaction – so they can say "That is not my intent."

    For example, "I feel like you haven't given me any interesting projects in months." can be countered with "I'm sorry you feel that way – was X terribly dull for you?"

    By contrast, saying "You haven't given me any interesting projects in months" is accusatory and invites argument.

    I do find the whole thing disingenuous, but given the discussion on increased frequency, perhaps this school of thought has infused greater society.

  10. Per said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 11:17 am

    Lily's suggestion for how management theorizes the use of "I feel like" matches pretty well with Benjamin's description of his use (and with my use).

    Looking back at Mark's list of hedges with that in mind, I think we can distinguish between hedges that are about inviting disagreement from hedges that aren't. To me it seems like foregrounding the self invites disagreement in ways that many of the hedges don't — most of the reason I use "I feel like" is to invite others to say how they feel in response, if it differs from how I feel. But "probably" doesn't have this effect, nor does "somewhat." My intuition is that "maybe" and "I guess" are used more often to hedge on someone else's statement than your own, although I don't know. And "I believe" suggests to me a belief that isn't open to change — think of that Book of Mormon song about how "A Mormon just believes."

    In other words, I'm not sure I think this list accurately captures the function of "I feel like." Only a couple of the entries include an invitation for my conversational partners to give opposing viewpoints.

    (From what I've written above, we might consider "seems to me" and "my intuition/impression is" as elements of a more targeted list.)

  11. A said,

    August 27, 2013 @ 11:50 am

    I'm a woman, and I used 'I feel like' very frequently, especially in my late teenage years and early twenties. It was a way to soften my opinions, in part to avoid confrontation and in part because I wasn't always completely sure of what I said. That way, if you present one point of view ("I feel like X is unnecessary."), another person can disagree ("Really? I feel like X is a vital part of his work.") without the same kind of feelings you provoke by saying "X is unnecessary" to a person who just happens to love X.

    By acknowledging that these are your feelings, you avoid hurting or inflaming other people's feelings. It's a non-confrontational way to express an opinion.

    When I want to make my opinions more forceful, I try to take the hedging out of my language.

  12. JDash30 said,

    August 30, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

    I'd like to submit also for consideration: "I'm going to have to ask you to…."

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