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"What the heck does the word 'should' mean? It's easily my least favourite word in the English language."

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read
"What the heck does the word 'should' mean? It's easily my least favourite word in the English language."
Photo by Frame Harirak / Unsplash

Ha, okay. This was surprisingly hard to answer without using the word 'should' (or the synonym 'ought') in the answer. So I've turned to the dictionary. The two main meanings it gives are:

  1. Used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness (such as when giving advice)
  2. Used to indicate something is likely (such as: "it should rain today" or, when tightening a loose bolt, "that oughtta do it")

1. seems harsh but the 'correctness' part is just about plain facts. "The widget should be fully screwed on before operating machine" is just telling you how the thing works.

I think these meanings are very blurry though. 2. is kind of the 'correctness' part of of 1. - based on current circumstances, the correct next step of the clouds is to rain. that And a duty is what you expect - predict? - someone will do.

And we use the word 'should' not just about people but about our expectations for the world. "It's been a week, I shouldn't still be sick." Does that mean we didn't predict we would still be sick? Or that the universe is obligated to treat you more fairly? I think we often kinda mean both, even for full-blood atheists.

So, yeah, it's no wonder you don't like it. First because most people don't like being reminded of obligations and duties, and especially don't like other people imposing new ones on them.

And secondly because of this blurring between the two uses. For example, people often give advice without saying what the advice is for.

"You should save 10% of your paycheck" implies a duty. In fact, there might be a silent 'if': "You should save 10% of your paycheck, [if you want to be able to handle a financial emergency when it comes up]". The second is more a prediction. This action should lead to that outcome (leaving it up to you if you want that outcome). It's way less judgey.

When a person doesn't spell out the silent 'if', the hearer might project all kinds of things onto it:
You should... [if you don't want to disappoint me] [if you want to be considered a worthwhile person] [if you want to remain a part of this family].

Sometimes you have a shady person saying "you should" and pretending their 'if' is something helpful and optional while secretly hoping you understand it is a judgement. The two meanings of 'should' give them plausible deniability (even to themselves - "all I said was...!)

And similarly the correctness vs. obligation. People use the blurriness of should to act like their "I believe you have an obligation to do x" is really a statement of neutral fact, just how things have to be. The widget has to be screwed on for the machine to operate. You need to dress more ladylike if you want to get anywhere in the world.

Or how the neutral tea-making instruction "you should put the milk in first/last" became for people a moral obligation and belief about correct behaviour? Or "you should/n't put a comma after the second-last item in a list". People build identities around value-neutral ways of doing things. I don't know what to say about that, it's super common and super weird.

Anyway, I think if people were only ever super clear and said, directly, "I think you have a duty to do x" you would object less to it, because you could just agree or be affronted at their presumptuousness. I think it's the blurriness and plausible deniability that infuriates you. (I say this because most people do believe they have duties and obligations to the people they care about, and are not upset about it - they value it.)

Note also that someone might be using "should" in a perfectly neutral way and you could be aggravated if you imagine a bunch of silent judgements that aren't there.

Side note: a piece of advice I've seen for people who respond with even the most benign shoulds with "don't tell me what to do, recipe!!" to reframe things to emphasise their agency. Like:

Instead of "I have to meet my friend" you say (to yourself) "I get to meet my friend".

Or for "I should do my taxes today", which is hard to frame as an opportunity without feeling like a weasel, try:

"I'm choosing to do my taxes today"


"I'll feel better if I do my taxes today".

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #63 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

Unsolicited AdviceEQ & Interpersonal


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