Friday, August 7, 2009

Here’s what I think: on framing and language

The following was inspired by an editorial in Bitch Magazine a while back – sorry I can’t cite exactly.

Okay. Here’s a little exercise for you women readers. Go to a word processor and write about something that really gets your goat. Doesn’t matter what. Racism, sexism, So You Think You Can Dance – something you care about. Write at least two sentences. Write casually, not formally or academically – like you would in conversation with a friend, or on your blog. Make sure you come to a conclusion or give your ideas on a subject.

Seriously. Go do it.

Finished yet? No? I’ll give you another second.

Alright, awesome. Thanks for bearing with me. Here’s what I wrote, on the thing that’s currently irking me (lack of wi-fi in my location):
This is a damn college campus. Why isn't there some blanket wi-fi? I think that the entire campus should be able to access the net on their laptops as well as they could at any coffee shop.
Look at your sentences. Look at my sentences. Specifically, look at the way we begin our sentences.

Did you say your idea outright? Or did you couch your suggestion – as I did – in “I think”? If not “I think”, what about “I feel” or “I believe”?

When I was writing above, why didn’t I just state:
The entire campus should be able to access the net on their laptops as well as they could at any coffee shop.
“Should” implies that this is an argument and a suggestion, making the necessary linguistic distinction between fact (“This is a damn college campus”) and proposal (“The entire campus should have wi-fi”). So why do I further explain that this is just MY thought, just MY suggestion, just MY little idea by starting with “I think”?

One of the ways the kyriarchy/patriarchy works its way into our language is through the way we structure our sentences and frame even our most valid and strongly held beliefs. Isms integrate themselves into speech so that even people who dedicate their lives to fighting oppression use oppressive language, whether it comes from ignorance or lack of vigilance. Just the other day, I said that a racist comment on Feministing was “lame” in a private conversation. I immediately caught myself, but still.

In well-developed and generally applicable arguments – not about your personal comfort level, but rather about larger issues – couching opinions in “I think” and “I believe” is a way to distance ourselves from our argument. It’s almost a form of apology, and it’s a way to defuse or deflect the criticism that will inevitably come from agents of normativity. Instead of making the argument forcefully and demanding that people listen to my ideas, I’m saying “this is just little old me, but…”

There can be benefits to saying “I think” or “For me”, especially in one-on-one arguments, or reflective, less developed arguments. When you’re trying to put the person you’re arguing with at ease (as I usually try to do in this space), it’s helpful to frame ideas in this way and not say “THIS IS WHAT YOU MUST THINK.” It can make your thoughts less threatening and more persuasive.

But when making a forceful argument to someone who’s just not listening, or to a general audience, feminist shouldn’t shy away from being threatening. That’s what we’re here to do – to threaten the systems of oppression and dismantle the kyriarchy.

It’s not like I’m doing this intentionally, or you’re doing it intentionally – it just slips out. It’s how I’ve been taught and trained to write my arguments and frame my thoughts.

Readers who are writers and bloggers, I’ve got a challenge for you next week: Next time you’re making an argument forcefully, in a blog post, email, or comment, add an extra step to your editing. Go through your sentences and see how they begin. How many begin with “I think”? “I believe”? Try taking a few out – it won’t hurt – and read your argument again. Convinced?

If you did the exercise above, post your results in the comments!


  1. Similar concept: making excuses for yourself. I had a discussion with my sister where we talked about how, if we stand up from a table, or eat a lot of cheetos, or whatever, we have to make excuses. "Sorry, I'm just gonna go to the bathroom. Sorry, I'm really hungry." Bumping into people on the street, saying "Sorry" instead of (my personal fav) "Excuse me/you."

    Similarly, in public speaking when women begin sentences with "Um" or "Well I was just thinking that..." it diminishes the effectiveness. Don't we have to retrain ourselves?

  2. I do this all the time, I'm having to hold myself back right now from saying 'I think' because I know exactly why I do it. I come from a poor background, dropped out of school at 15, did do some college but have absolutely nothing like the sort of education a lot of other feminists seem to have which does at times intimidate me even though I know it shouldn't.
    I have a right to speak and I'm open to learn new things and change my way of thinking about things, I'm not scared to be told I'm wrong so there's no need for me to do it but it's this little feeling of inadequacy at the back of my mind telling me I'm not worthy so shouldn't get any ideas above my station. Also, IRL I seem to always be marked out as a 'scary' female, saying 'I think...' is another way to say 'I'm not that scary honest, please like me!'

    That's another part of my language I will definitely be re-assessing.

    (The amount of times I wanted to say 'I think....' during that! Too many.)

  3. I always thought it was redudant to say "I think" in front of something... I only use it purposefully to make it plain when I'm talking to someone who doesn't know me well that I am aware that I am stating just my opinion and am try not to step on toes.

  4. I have also noticed that if I don't say I think or I feel I still put the onus on something or someone else like "In my class we talked about how people say I think or I feel because we like to believe that we are moral relativists when we're really not"

    Using "in my class we talked about..." separates me from any possible blame, even though, I must think its true if its important enough to share.

    I once had a professor who made everyone rewrite their papers because everyone wrote "I" in there at some point. He said- I know its from your perspective. You wrote it.

  5. This is great! I'm an English teacher, and I try to get my students NOT to write using "I think" or "I believe" (you should hear the moans when I tell them not to use "I" in their formal papers!). I am definitely bookmarking this and using it as an exercise for my students... and for myself, of course!

    Spot on; well done!

    (I'm also linking it to my Weekly Rundown here: Just fyi. ;) )

  6. This is great! Something I haven't really thought about. It really says something that there are these ways built into language and conversation that are aimed at silencing people. I wrote a post the other day about the subtle silencing technique that men use against feminists: using the phrase "I know I'm going to get killed for saying this, but..." Saying this will usually make women try to put the man saying it at ease and back down from their argument, kind of along the lines of saying "I think" least the way that you described it. Here's the link to that post:

    And was that a hint to get me to write a post about So You Think You Can Dance? ;)

  7. Great post! I have been trying not to use passive tone in my writing lately and this is just another form of it, so I will definitely use your exercise.

  8. There's a lot of truth to what you say about framing, but another component is our perspective as progressive bloggers. When I'm striving for inclusion and humility in my blog, I want to stress in my writing that I only represent my opinions and experiences. I don't want to speak for anyone else or presume to know their experience, so I couch my language accordingly.

  9. @everyone - Thanks so much for chiming in! I'm really pleased by the response to this post. :)

    @Valerie: I earn a living as a tutor, and this is something I say often. ("So" and "also" at the beginnings of sentences also earn my ire, though that's more relevant to academic writing).

    @Laura: maybe :)

    @Ashley: Thanks for the link!

    @Miranda: Good point! I think it's definitely appropriate in a lot of circumstances - see my fourth paragraph from the bottom. And I think it works for a lot of writers, and more power to them.

    However, I think there are other ways to say it besides tagging every sentence and detail in thought with "This is just me" or "I think" or "To me". I think that a short paragraph near the beginning explaining "I come from X perspective, so this isn't universal" would be more effective and more clearly articulated than qualifying every point.

  10. This is a good point, and a good argument (see what I did there?), but I do think (uh oh!) that there is a benefit to "personal framing." While it can reinforce passivity and hesitation, it is also a way of acknowledging that you can only speak from YOUR experience, and from inside the "frame" of your self. And I strongly believe (uh oh again) that this is actually a strength of women's writing. While men [tend to] make declarative statements that appear grammatically as the "Truth," women (through storytelling and self-sharing) are the backbone of culture and interpersonal communities.

    You mentioned this in one of your latter paragraphs, but it does deserve emphasizing, I think. I like the above comment-- this is just general good advice for writers, especially critical writers.

    Another verbal tick that my mother brought up recently is the tension between "I think" and "I feel." She claims to have been asking my dad "how he feels about _X_" for 20 years, and he could never come up with an answer. Then, she altered her question to "What do you THINK about _X_," and he was able to provide the answer she was seeking.

    What was interesting to me is how the sought-for answer was the same in either situation, but it had to be framed in terms of thinking, not feeling, in order for a man to provide it. Lame? Or at least, worthy of critique.

  11. off-topic, love your newish layout!

    Ms. Mod

  12. This is definitely a problem I have. I try to go through any professional correspondence I send out so that it isn't filled with "I think" and "I believe." I know what I'm doing, so I shouldn't have to preface what I'm saying with those words. If I'm saying something, it's because I have a way of backing it up -- either experience, or data, or anecdotal evidence, or whatever.

    Great post! I'm glad I voted for it hehe

  13. This is something I've been focusing on in my speech and writing. I've found that another strategy I use to diminish my words is to include lots of qualifying or filler words; kind of padding to cushion the impact. So I say things like, 'I mean' and 'seriously' rather than just coming out and being blunt. To illustrate, here's my exercise (which I modelled on my verbal speech rather than my more formalised blog speech):

    I can’t believe they actually put a white person on the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s new book. I mean, seriously, do they think we’re seriously going to keep putting up with that crap?

  14. I've worked hard to stop saying: "I was just going to say that..."

    But I notice that other women say it all the time. You weren't "just going to say it" you ARE saying it now.

  15. I just checked my last post on gender neutrality, and I did quite well. [ ].:D


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin