This was one of my favourite posts to write for TINO because I love the power of language. I still find myself using the word should every other day, but for the most part, after months of diligent effort, it’s been largely removed from my vocabulary.
The S Word
Language shapes the way we see the world. When we are infants, we have no way of articulating the overwhelming flood of stimuli we are experiencing. As we learn to speak, we start to categorise the world into easily-understandable groups. We understand “dog” refers to the small things with four legs, “tomorrow” is the day after today and so on.
In a way, this limits the way we can perceive our world. It is difficult to imagine an idea that cannot be explained in words, but they exist- we have billions of them every day. But when we try and communicate them, when we try and put words to thoughts, we narrow what we’re experiencing. For example, if I were to try and tell you what these spiced peanuts taste like, I could throw dozens of words at you and still not adequately convey the taste. I might come close, but it would be a poor shade of the experience.
French philosopher Michel Foucault believed that language is the foundation in which we interpret information. This is why learning multiple languages can enrich your understanding of the world. It may seem obvious, but there are some words which cannot be perfectly translated into English. For example, I might try and describe the Japanese concept of “zanshin” to you as “a state of being totally relaxed yet totally aware of your surroundings, prepared to receive and respond to whatever circumstances life may offer you”. You could read all about it on Wikipedia or through hundreds of pages in books, but no matter how many English words you use, no other phrase describes “zanshin” quite so well as “zanshin”. And this is just one of an infinite number of examples.
So what’s my point in all this? Language has tremendous influence on how we understand and perceive the world (including our life circumstances and ourselves). And it is my firm belief that using certain words colours our perception of life in an unhelpful way. If I could ban one word in all of the English language, I would ban the word “should”. Why do I consider this the worst word in the entire world? Because “should” is loaded with implications of guilt and envy, and limits the possibility of change. It almost always sets up the speaker to think in a negative frame of mind, even if they don’t realise it. Let’s look at some examples.
Example 1: Let’s take the phrase “I should be doing the dishes”. If you should be doing the dishes, it means that the dishes are more important than whatever you’re doing, and that because you’re not doing them, you’re wasting time or focussing your efforts on the wrong priorities. Such a statement is laden with potential guilt, and guilt can be paralysingly unhelpful. Imagine if you replaced “should” with the word “could”: “I could be doing the dishes”. Such a phrase is comparatively full of hope and possibility, rather than guilt and judgement. You don’t have to do the dishes if you don’t want to, but if you so choise, that would be one way that you could spend your time.
Example 2: Let’s examine the phrase “You should have called me”. If someone should have called you, it means that you believe that you were more important than whatever else that person could have been doing, and that it was a personal failure on their part not to find the time to contact you. Regardless of the reasons, “should” is loaded with judgement and limitations, and is almost entirely negative in its associations. What if instead we used the phrase “I wish that you had called me”? It does not inherently imply that the person you’re talking to did something wrong by not calling you. It is a polite and respectful expression of your desire to receive a call, rather than the blame-laden “you should have called me”. The former invites explanation and conversation, the latter, defensiveness.
Example 3: Let’s try “I should have won that competition”. “Should” here implies that you deserved to win, and something or someone (who did not deserve to win) took that victory from you. Such an implicit attitude refuses to accept the circumstances of life which are beyond the speaker. Perhaps the person didn’t win because of the heavy wind, or the uneven footing, or a lack of sleep, or some factor they had no control over. Using the word “should” implies that these forces of nature got in the way of the person’s deserved victory. It is almost as if a person is saying “My life isn’t good enough. It should be better. I deserve better things to happen to me, and I am frustrated that I am not receiving them.” This kind of thinking is disastrously self-pitying and leads nowhere. Changing the phrase instead to “I would have love to have won” has no such assumptions of life. Although it still might imply disappointment, it does not so readily imply bitterness, and contains the hope that things might turn out differently next time.
I’ve stopped using the word “should” in daily conversation. At first I was surprised how often it came up – I would use it several times a day without thinking. But after I really started paying attention to what I was saying, more and more often I found ways of getting around the dreaded “S” word. Try it for yourself, and let me know what changes you notice in your outlook on life!