A Word to the Wise: A Word to Avoid

I’m not talking about the N-word or the B-word or the C-word, or even the F-word; though there are damned few times when uttering any of those syllables actually help a situation. I’m talking about that personally pernicious word that simultaneously lets you off the hook even as it dumps you into a psychological pit. I’m talking about the S-word: should.

According to Merriam-Webster, this auxiliary verb expresses obligation, propriety or expediency: i.e. he/she/it should keep their mouth shut/drive slower/get a better hair cut; versus you should call your mother/take out the garbage/read a novel; versus I should get a new job, exercise more/write my congressional representative.

The first instance—directing ‘should’ in the third person—is gossip; which is almost always fun in the moment but starts tasting rancid the moment it escapes the mouth. The second—directing ‘should’ in the second person—is judgment; and unless someone solicits your opinion, keep it to yourself. The third—directing ‘should’ at yourself—is an excuse; equating the desire to lose weight/stop smoking/sleep more with the effort of actually doing it.

I first recognized the crutch of ‘should’ in the 1990’s. In my post-marriage/pre-Internet years, I sometimes frequented gay bars. Too many times, the first or second thing out of an engaging guy’s mouth was, “I should lose ten pounds.” A line always prompted me to move on. In part because I have a penchant for hefty guys, and often found those extra ten pounds attractive. But more important, as any wary son of an alcoholic can attest: I am wary of any statement of intent masquerading as actual action.

Once I realized my negative reaction to anyone using the S-word, I began monitoring my own use. It wasn’t too difficult to stop applying ‘should’ to myself; I’m highly disciplined, and so I decided to either lose the weight/do the exercise/repair the leaky faucet—or shut up about it. Giving unsolicited advice was a lot harder; we all know we can navigate other’s lives better than they do it themselves. Hardest still, to stop gossiping about what others should be doing. In time, I got better at eliminating my use of the word ‘should.’ The result? A lot less talking, which is generally good for me and likely the world at large as well.

I thought my understanding of the evils of ‘should’ were pretty solid, until I read Jane Elliot’s recent article, “How ‘Should’ Makes us Stupid—And How to Get Smart Again.” Dr. Elliot explains how telling ourselves that we should do something, actually makes the objective more difficult to achieve. Saying that we should lose ten pounds/go to the gym/quit smoking measures our current self against a receding horizon of expectation; an expectation that we inevitably fail to achieve, and thus descend into what she refers to as the deficit mindset.

I don’t buy every morsel of Dr. Elliot’s pop psychology path out of the tyranny of the ‘should,’ but she offers us a pretty good place to start. Every time you think ‘should’, say ‘want.’ I want to lose ten pounds. Voila! I’ve turned an obligation into an aspiration, even a motivation.

Once you start replacing ‘should’ with ‘want’ in the first person, making the switch in the second and third person can easily follow. “I want you to be happy,” replaces “you should get therapy.” “I want them to find more satisfying work,” replaces, “they should get a new job.”

‘Should’ is the Debbie Downer of words, whether we apply it to ourselves or others. When the urge to ‘should’ descends: rephrase, reframe. In time you’ll stop saying the S-word and—trust me—you’ll never miss it.


About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, theawkwardpose.com is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog, www.howwillwelivetomorrw.com, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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2 Responses to A Word to the Wise: A Word to Avoid

  1. Larry Gerstner says:

    I really enjoyed this. I’m sure I’m guilty of using ‘should’ in one of these ways at times but I think I’ve somewhat internalized what you have so explicitly explained, e.g. I don’t think I’m too judgmental of a person for example. The only bright side of ‘should’ can be in humor: “I really should get my lazy butt out of this bed…”. But using ‘want’ is a great suggestion generally.

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