A few years ago, a teaching colleague of mine said something that I think of often. At a professional development course for teachers, she’d been asked to contemplate what alterations to her communication style would occur by eliminating the word ‘should’. Teachers have to be concise, yet considered with their words, after all. She brought this up in conversation with me and described how it made her re-think so much about the raising of her teenage boys. About how the use of the word reflected on her parenting style and potentially defined the course of her relationships. This revelation has stayed with me since, especially at times when I catch myself saying it as part of everyday conversation. I remind myself that words have power and are often unintentionally corrosive.
In law terms, ‘should’ is more associated with moral obligation and even as synonymous with words like ‘recommendation’. So how did it come to sound so forceful? I suspect it’s all context. Each time I catch myself saying ‘should’ in the classroom it’s usually in the hope of getting someone to do something I believe they are obliged to do. But it is not always teacherly to be didactic, to present parameters of rigid ‘shoulds’. Rarely can the effective, teacherly voice be found in such loaded words. And ‘should’ feels rather less flexible when spoken out loud by a teacher to a student.
“You should know this by now”
– ‘If you worked on this, you could show others how to do it’ –
“How should we show respect to our environment?”
– ‘Can you think of ways we have lessened our impact on the environment already? Where can we go from there?’ –
“This remote should turn the air conditioner on”
Outside of the school setting, I find myself using ‘should’ more often with the intent of opinion-giving. When reaching peak frustration levels, I am convinced there is a certain way the world works best, that many people are wrong and stupidity is rife. The hard part in overcoming ‘shoulds’ therefore, has been in recognising that I surround myself with too many people who agree with me. When I begin a sentence with “People should just..” and my audience are nodding their heads, then I’m being enabled. Perhaps I should just go and make friends with Trump supporters. Easy fix, maybe?
‘Just’ is another very ugly word. It implies that the action you’re expected to do is nothing but a piece of cake. Like running a marathon or looking hot in active wear is a simple matter, accessible to everyone if only we’d ‘just do it’. Many times I’ve struggled with my workload, trying to balance another unnecessary admin task on top of the towering pile of jobs I am already expected to do, to be told it’s ‘just’ a small thing. It’ll practically do itself. I resent the implication that to grow my yoga business I ‘should’ ‘just’ synergise whatever social media I can so as to make an impact in the hyper-competitive market. But I just hate the words ‘social media’. And there’s no ‘just’ in getting on with the business of growing a yoga business. It comes from the heart, not from making myself into a buzz-worthy brand bot.
On a more tender note, it’s likely someone has made you feel small, incompetent or invalidated with a little word like ‘just’. Like it’s no big deal that you feel fear, vulnerability or shame. When someone says I should ‘just’ do the things I dread or ‘just’ get over the things that hurt still, there’s an arrogant kind of pride in that. How superior they must feel that they aren’t in my shoes. Not today anyway. I’ve been guilty of saying it myself, however. Perhaps it’s quite human to compare and contrast life experiences. How often do we find ourselves saying ‘just’ and ‘should’ to peers, colleagues…. friends even?
“She should just fix her habits”
– ‘She has some fairly significant reasons for this and she may change one day when she’s ready’
“She just shouldn’t let that kid have so much power over her”
– ‘The role of mother is a the toughest one humans go through. None of my business how she goes about it…’
“Well he should just get hearing aids fitted”
When we are forced to think of other things to say in place of ‘should’, a deeper sentiment forces its way through. I often catch myself saying opinionated things like, “Schools should offer relevant languages to learn; Mandarin, Indonesian and the local Aboriginal dialect instead of Japanese and German”. But how impassioned do I actually sound? I’ve found that a gentle rephrasing often shows a more considered angle. “I wonder how our 21st century society might be different if, instead of learning the language of our World War II allies and enemies, we learned those of our neighbours and those of Australia’s first peoples?”
My choice of words is a work in progress. How blessed are those whose default mode is not to say whatever comes into their mind first. Passing judgement and ‘committing assumicide’ are foreign to some wonderful people who walk the earth alongside the fiery pitta doshas like myself. I have much to learn still.
But the most dangerous of all are the ‘shoulds’ and ‘justs’ we reserve for ourselves, often unchecked.
“I should lose weight by just eating less”
“I shouldn’t have gone down this career path”
“I should just have a crack at it”