Multiple Meanings in “I don’t know how I feel about that”

I noticed an unexpected form of ambiguity recently in the context of the phrase “I don’t know how I feel about that”. In common English, that sentence and its many permutations and variants have a fairly specific meaning, which is almost but not exactly the literal meaning. I was trying to specifically communicate the literal meaning, and realized I couldn’t without a bunch of explanation. This post is that explanation, for future reference.

As an example, let’s say you were offered a piece of food. We can roughly map your emotional reaction down to a simple scale from -100 (very negative; you would not eat the food under any circumstances) to 100 (very positive; you desperately want to eat the food). A score around 0 would be neutral, or ambivalent. This loses a lot of nuance of course, but that’s OK for the purposes of the example.

Given this scenario, if you say “I don’t know how I feel about that”, that’s generally taken to mean your reaction is around 0; you are roughly ambivalent. But literally taken, you do actually know how you feel: you know that you’re ambivalent. What you’re really expressing uncertainty about is which side of 0 you’ll fall on (ever so slightly positive, or ever so slightly negative), and thus whether you should eat the food.

However, in the specific case I ran into recently, I didn’t want to express “I’m close to neutral on this”. I wanted to express “I literally do not know what number I am feeling”. I could have been anywhere on the scale between -100 and 100, and I simply didn’t know. This not knowing was a very weird experience in itself, since it doesn’t seem common to be that out of touch with your own emotions. But apparently it can happen. Who knew.