The worst word in the English language, and how it’s ruining your life
I have great respect for words. As a speech pathologist by day and a blog writer by (occasional) night, it would be problematic and confusing if I didn’t.
But I don’t think all words have a place in our language.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no linguistic purist. My utterances are often peppered with not-quite-right lingo; my writing regularly riddled with suspect syntax that would have Chomsky thrashing in his literary grave.
But words hold more power than we often give them credit for. And as such, lexical selection is best made with at least a sprinkle of discretion.
Most of us are already aware of the profound differences in meaning that word choice can create. Describing an act as ‘freedom fighting’ rather than ‘terrorism’ conveys a less-than-subtle indication of political perspective.
But this is not an article about politics. This is an article about a word that the world would be infinitely better without.
The word ‘should’.
It sounds innocuous enough. It’s not even one of those offensive terms that lends itself to chronic mispronunciation or misspelling. But the impact it has on the human condition cannot be underestimated.
‘Should’ is the word we use when we know that an action would probably be healthy or helpful, but we don’t want and probably don’t intend to follow through on it. It’s the cop out word. The word we use as our ‘get out of jail free’ card, while still maintaining the illusion that we genuinely care about said jail.
I should do my tax tonight. I should start meditating. I should not sit on my expanding backside and eat this enormous family-sized pizza in my unwashed underpants while binge-watching an entire season of The Bachelor.
(Subtext: but I’m gonna)
Once we do what we said we shouldn’t, or don’t do what we said we should, the result is almost always guilt. And guilt is not a healthy emotion.
While some may see guilt as a means of motivating positive behaviour change, the converse is often the case. After downing our family-sized pizza, we are often riddled with self-loathing. And to soothe the self-loathing, we tend to turn towards something comforting. Like a nice big tub of triple chocolate swirl ice-cream, for example.
This guilt also serves to strengthen our self-image as a discipline-deficient human. It reinforces the belief that we are lazy or greedy or incapable. And this belief then — whether consciously or subconsciously — drives our future decisions.
“I’m just a lazy person; what’s the point of even buying gym gear? I may as well use the money to renew my Netflix subscription instead.”
Further, when we engage with ‘should-ing’ language, we suggest to ourselves that the behaviour of interest is an intrinsically unappealing one. It insinuates that we are acting merely out of obligation, rather than because we actually derive any benefit. And in so doing, we inadvertently augment the downside while simultaneously spurning any perks or positives.
This negative neurolinguistic programming thus serves to perpetuate our view of the target behaviour as being a chore. And nothing viewed as a chore is ever going to feel easy or become habitual.
So even if we manage to drag ourselves through the task this time around, we’re going to feel just as jaded about it the next time it needs to be done.
Evidently, ‘should’ is not a helpful linguistic choice.
But what’s the alternative?
The way I see it, there are two options: ‘will’ in place of ‘should’, or simply say nothing.
‘Will-ing’ carries the same sense as ‘should-ing’, but with an important difference. When we ‘will’, we exclusively emphasize the action. Opting to say ‘I will call my mum’ rather than ‘I should call my mum’ erases the complaining, ditches the painful procrastination process, and we just get on with it. And by bypassing the ‘should-ing’, we subconsciously perceive of the task as less of a chore.
Heck, we may even end up enjoying the parental chin wag.
However, sometimes inaction wins out. Exhaustion outweighs inspiration. We all have those days when we just know that we won’t make it to the gym because our afternoon will be fully occupied creating a butt-shaped indentation on the couch.
And that’s fine. We all need a hot date with some trashy TV from time to time. But don’t spoil the fun by ‘should-ing’ all over the place, and tainting your enjoyable night in with unproductive guilt.
Silence is sometimes ok. The gym isn’t going anywhere.
And who knows?
Maybe tomorrow you will.