I’ve had one professor here at the University that absolutely intimidated me. She was a journalist and author who had interviewed President Barack Obama, lived in Afghanistan for some time and quoted Freud on a regular basis. When I went to raise my hand — which I only did because I had to let her know that I did, in fact, come to class — my face would turn red and my hands would tremble beneath my desk. I started my sentences with shaky phrases that barely made it seem like I had an opinion, “Umm, well I think that … ” or “To go off what she said … ” or “I feel that … ” I’m not even sure if those words were intelligible, honestly.
Those phrases, called hedges, were my way of softening my assertions and basically letting my professor know, “I’m the idiot here. I get it. Please don’t hate me.”
I recently came across a Jezebel article in which the author, Katie Baker, said, “Most young women I know are self-conscious about how often they qualify their emotions with ‘I feel like.’ ” She goes on to say that it sounds indulgent, Carrie Bradshaw-esque and sheepish. They’re all fair criticisms, but why does the author of this article, a writer at Jezebel of all places, take it upon herself to criticize the way women — specifically women, mind you — speak?
From one standpoint, I can see Baker’s point. Hedging — adding words or phrases that mitigate or weaken the certainty of a statement — can easily soften assertions and help women avoid the inevitable “bitch” label. According to English Prof. Anne Curzan, “Women are in a potentially very complicated situation. When women make bold assertions, it is often seen as not feminine. With men, this can be seen as strong and powerful. For women, it can be seen as overly aggressive.”
I highly doubt many women, including myself, want to be seen as an overly aggressive, masculine bitch.
But I think there’s more to it than that. As I sat in class this past week and listened to my peers, both men and women hedged their sentences. Now, take this with a grain of salt because my communications studies classes aren’t exactly overflowing with testosterone, but my feeling is that students, in general, do this. Curzan also points out that, “When we’re talking, we’re negotiating relationships. We’re trying to figure out in what situation is it acceptable to assert something and what situation requires more careful speech to let people know that this statement is open for discussion.”
That point is key to understanding why we hedge statements. In a classroom, students have little authority, have the very real potential to hear those dreaded words, “you’re wrong,” and are sitting among their quite judgmental peers. It’s not just that I found my professor crazily intimidating — it’s that I was also afraid of coming off as ignorant to 30 other students.
While Baker claims that she notices women use “I feel like” in spaces beyond the classroom, isn’t most of life just like a classroom? People will always judge, there’s often someone present with more authority and no one wants to come off as uninformed.
I think the point we should be celebrating here, as women, is that we may be pioneering language change — again, I should add. Curzan says, “A lot of studies show that women are innovators in language. It’s an area where women often come up for criticism, and I think there are social and cultural reasons for that. People are looking at how women present themselves, linguistically and otherwise.”
At this point, women are being criticized for using “I feel like.” But, most likely, this phrase will eventually become quite normal. The same goes for other vocal trends, such as “like” and vocal frying — otherwise known as “creaking.” A study published in 2010 in the journal American Speech found that creaky voice was perceived as being educated, urban-oriented and upwardly mobile among the Millennial generation. Not exactly the same feeling the dads of the world have about it. Eventually, vocal frying could very well be seen as an authoritative form of speaking.
It’s okay to express doubt, and it’s also okay to be assertive. What’s not okay — and what we should be talking about — is why women, like Baker, feel the need to discuss the reasoning behind what they say. Despite the fact that she agrees that women should say whatever they feel like, it’s odd to me that it took a whole article to figure that out. I feel like, we’re innovating here, give us some space.
Adrienne Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.