“I feel like this meeting has begun to drift off topic.”
“I feel like this email has a tone that’s a little too brusque.”
“I feel like this paragraph contains multiple topics that could be better understood if they were divided into individual paragraphs and developed further.”
As a writing trainer and coach, I have noticed myself using the “I feel like…” sentence opener in the classroom and in the feedback that I offer to course participants. I don’t know if other trainers do this, or if it’s a verbal tic unique to me. A quick search tells me that it’s not, although it does seem to be associated with women more so than men.
I am less interested in the (legitimate and significant) gender differences than I am in the distinction between feeling and thinking. Particularly as a language specialist working among environmental scientists who also feel that their thoughts require hedging, I find this to be a topic worthy of some exploration.
Let’s start by establishing some definitions. Feelings are purely subjective (ignore for the moment Descartes, Hume, and Kant). They happen to us. They are interpreted by us. And they are articulated through us. We can share them with others, but we cannot teach other people to feel as we do.
Opinions are subjective interpretations of data. Opinions are one way that we interpret our experience with the world. Our experiences can be pleasant or unpleasant. The same experience can be perceived as pleasurable to one person and painful to another. Those are opinions to which everyone is entitled.
Thoughts are objective and rational. They are the product of an accumulation of knowledge that is combined, synthesized, and analyzed to arrive at justifiable conclusions. Thoughts can be demonstrated with evidence and reasoning. Reasonable people can disagree about the strength of the evidence and the line of reasoning, to a certain extent. But thoughts are not endlessly debatable, and people are not entitled to hold their own thoughts counter to the evidence. A person may not “believe” in gravity but nevertheless will be held to the earth.
In the vast majority of cases, when I say “I feel like…” feelings have nothing to do with the statement that follows. I do not “feel” anything about someone’s email in the context of a classroom exercise. But is my response to the email an opinion or a thought?
This is where I feel that scientists and academics struggle in a contemporary society that tends to treat all opinions as equally valid. It seems to me as though every individual in America today is entitled to either like or dislike Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie with the same vigor he or she uses to believe or disbelieve in climate change.
Anyone can have an opinion on a movie, or a meal, or a book in the sense that the person can like or dislike the object for whatever reason. Those are legitimate differences of opinion.
What makes one piece of writing more effective than another is not a matter of opinion. It is a product of thought. Sentences are easier to read when they contain subjects and verbs that are close to one another and at the front of the sentence. In email, short paragraphs are more easily digested than longer ones. These statements are evidentiary. They have been proven, and, as I stated earlier, “people are not entitled to hold their own thoughts counter to the evidence.”
Likewise for the environmental scientists with whom I work, the fact of climate change is a thought, not an opinion. Reasonable people can discuss the extent to which it may affect a species’ viability within the foreseeable future. But people are not entitled to “disbelieve” in climate change.
So why do I persist in saying things like “I feel like this email has a tone that’s a little too brusque”? Perhaps it is because of this feeling:
“I find I use the phrase most often when confronting potential conflict or delivering a critical opinion of some kind,” one friend said. “It hedges, not by ‘deferring’ to feelings as less harsh or serious than ‘thinking.’ I’m being honest about where my opinion is coming from. It’s a staple of nonviolent communication, actually, to make the distinction.”
Yeah, I’m a language expert. Yes, I have a PhD. Sure, I do this teaching thing day-in and day-out. I have every right to tell people that an email should be written differently. But the people I work with are learning. That means they are vulnerable.
I want participants in my courses to feel safe. I want them to have the psychological and emotional space to change their writing practices voluntarily, because they see a better way to do things. I do not want them to be brow beaten into submission.
I wish we lived in a world where women didn’t have to qualify their thoughts as feelings in order to be heard. I wish we understood and respected the difference between a personal opinion and an educated thought. Still, I delight in language that allows me to respect people who open themselves to the joy of discovery.