All the feels.
Your Facebook or Twitter feed no doubt features a few occurrences of this phrase. And you know, it’s fine, in the right place. A picture of two otters holding hands. A baby and a puppy playing. Manipulative, schmaltzy John Lewis Christmas adverts (I haven’t seen the latest one, but I gather it’s about a family buying a dog a trampoline for Christmas). Those situations which give you a nice warm feeling inside for a brief time.
As I’ve noticed it being used more and more though, I tried a little experiment. I searched for “All the feels” on Facebook (that’s about the extent of my social-media penetration), and the first five public posts brought up the following:
- Cam Newton surprises a Make-A-Wish child #AllTheFeels
- When your 81-year-old grandpa has been waiting for this moment his whole life #AllTheFeels (Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series)
- Sad tears turned into happy ones when this boy realized his dad hadn’t forgotten about his birthday after all! #AlltheFeels!
- #AllTheFeels from Holly on Hot 101.5 today. The video of the mom when she realizes her little girl is going to receive a life-saving kidney had us in tears!
- Dr Pepper emotions decoded. Tell your friends. #AllTheFeels
What struck me was how inappropriate (in the sense of not fitting the situation, not in a judgemental sense), the use of the hashtag was in four of the five cases. The Doctor Pepper one actually seemed the most appropriate: an awkward attempt by a major corporation to tap into the current trends of the youth market (kids like emojis and feels, right?). But the others just seem to be too serious, too affecting for a flippant hashtag that’s just missing a LOL! at the end. They’re all capable of stirring up strong emotions, so don’t they deserve a little more than #AlltheFeels? It seems to trivialise genuinely affecting moments of human interaction and commoditise them, packaging them as the latest in a long line of viral videos to pop up before your eyes and be swiped away and forgotten moments later. Feel genuine human emotion for a fleeting moment! Now a different emotion! Now a gif of a dog kissing a fish!
An obvious reason for this trend is that people often feel uncomfortable facing strong emotions, and this is just another way for people to distance themselves from those feeling: Oh my God, my heart is breaking looking at that poor… I mean AlltheFeelZ!! LOL!! Which is understandable: you can’t force people to deal with emotions in a certain way. My concern would be about people growing up and seeing this as the appropriate response for any emotional moment. But what I’m really concerned about is the effect this might have on people’s vocabulary.
Off the top of my head, I can think of a few adjectives that might be appropriate for some of the above Facebook posts: heart-warming, poignant, sad, bittersweet, uplifting, inspiring, heartbreaking, stirring, moving, touching. thirst-quenching. Now you might argue that all the feels is simply standing in for one or more of these descriptions, and the important thing is that the person using the hashtag still feels the appropriate feeling. However, I’m not entirely sure of what exactly they’re feeling.
As a teenager reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four , I was intrigued by many of the concepts the novel made me consider. It’s probably still my favourite book. One thing that particularly struck me though was Newspeak: the simplified, strictly-controlled language created by the novel’s totalitarian regime in order to eliminate thought and expression that runs contrary to the party’s orthodoxy:
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.” – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
Remove the word revolution from the lexicon, and how can people plan one? I thought about this idea a lot, and still do. I was particularly curious about the most extreme application of this idea: if we have no word for a concept in our language, can we then conceive it at all? In 1940, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf put forward the idea that language influences our thought: linguistic relativism. He argued, for example that the Native-American Hopi tribe had no concept of time, because they had no word for it. His views have generally been discredited as being too reductive, though most linguists agree that linguistic relativism does exist to a more limited degree. One example is how different cultures refer to colours differently, which I touched on briefly before. But some concepts, like time, or rebellion, are probably too fundamental for people not to be able to imagine them in some pre-linguistic manner.
But what about emotions? Are they also so fundamental? I don’t know, to be honest. I could imagine that some might feel inspired without having a word to define the sensation. Still, labelling something feels like it makes it more concrete and defined, more real. We can talk about it, analyse it, and act upon it. And I think that’s the most important thing: the element of interaction. We might feel appropriately moved by a video we watch, but if we share it with all the feels! are we really communicating how we felt? And might we be prejudicing the opinion of someone before they watch it, making it seem more trivial in their eyes? Being precise in our use of language allows us to express our inner life more exactly. People will therefore get a more accurate sense of who we really are, and interact with us accordingly. And it can also help people be more open about their feelings, and therefore get a better handle, and some perspective, on them. In a country with quite a high rate of suicide among young men, this can only be a good thing.
So while we can probably feel all sorts of feelings without being able to put them into words, if we can’t really express them to the people around us, how useful are they?