We are all familiar with the word should. It seems innocuous enough. We often use it in regards to predicting a likely outcome. I have followed the recipe and left it in the over for the specified time, it should be done by now. And in that context it is relatively harmless, a mere prediction bolstered by completion of a presumably reliable process. The desired outcome seemed assured so if we do not achieve it then something went awry in the process or our execution of it. A sound problem solving approach and a core part of the scientific method. Again, seem innocuous enough. Right?
When applied to specifically mechanical processes it is. Based on proven evidence and reliable precedent we predict cause and effect outcomes. Raise the temperature of water to the right degree it boils, we know that for certain. Turning the burner on high should bring the water to that temperature in short order. In this instance we say should because stoves can vary from model to model.
Methodical cause and effect predictions based on trusted factual precedent help us guide our efforts and energies when we are in unfamiliar territory. Even if we have never boiled water before there is enough evidence and reliable process out there we can feel confident in predicting the outcome of our efforts. It simplifies both the process and reduces our inherent anxieties about the unknown as well.
It works so well in that context we understandably turn its use to other aspects of our lives. A plus B should lead to C seems a logical and comfortingly streamlining approach. Human behavior, however, is never that simple a phenomenon. The behavioral action itself might be an A or B but that action never occurs in a vacuum, it is always connected to our motivations as well as our perceptions of events. And those are far from simple.
Take the original recipe example. If all the steps were properly completed according to instruction the result should be the one we are looking for. If we now take that a step away from simple procedural method and turn it into behavior, if we instead make it a statement from one person to another, the danger starts to emerge pretty quickly.
“If you have followed all my instructions properly it should turn out the way we want it to.”
Immediately tones of both judgement and potential punitive consequences appear, potentially ranging from almost negligible to almost life threatening. It depends on the inflection.
Read the statement in a happy and supportive tone and the encouragement can completely overpower any insinuations of judgement or consequence. Now read it again in a flat tone. Now read it in a frustrated and aggressive tone. And one more time as if it is being shouted it in rage.
The more we elevate the anger the more prominent the threat of punishment becomes, coming naturally hand in hand with the anger, but the moment the tone even simply goes flat the sense of judgement becomes obvious and that is the primary danger of our seemingly innocuous shoulds.
Prescription Makes It Personal
It is one thing to anticipate a particular result, even to feel extremely confident in that anticipation based on past experience or reliability of precedent, it is a very different thing to expect a particular result. Should is an expectation.
Expecting a result implies it has somehow been both guaranteed and obligated, it should be achieved. All well and good for procedural troubleshooting but when applied on an interpersonal level any potential failures become skewed not as ones of procedure but of the person. The person will have failed.
We all make mistakes and ideally we would all be able to separate practical mistakes from our sense of confidence or self-worth but even the most confident and self-assured among us can still get demoralized by not meeting expectations, other people’s or our own.
Disappointment is a natural reaction to an undesired outcome. Condemnation is a toxic emotion whether imposed by others or ourselves. Should implies an undesirable result will indicate something undesirable about the person.
Results to not determine our worth or character. How we achieve them does. Should implies an imperative over both.
Judgement Denotes Right Or Wrong
If there is a result we should be achieving or a method we should be using the primary implication is there is a right or wrong result, a right way or wrong way to do it. There are certainly more or less effective methods and more or less desirable outcomes but any tones of right and wrong bring with them implied moral imperatives.
Not only will the person have failed, now they will also have been wrong.
According to whose judgement? According to which paradigms or imperatives? Being part of a society means accepting and agreeing to shared rules and obligations but personal and moral imperatives are far more mercurial things. And even implied threats of judgement or punitive consequences are as much, and often more, about power and control over decision making as they are about guiding behavior.
Is there a right or wrong way to measure success? A right or wrong way to achieve success? A right or wrong way to parent? A right or wrong way to love? A right or wrong way make a bed? A right or wrong way to boil water?
Replace right or wrong with effective in the above questions and the of should all but disappears. The questions become aimed at achieving the best possible result rather than placating a judging entity, whether that entity is outside of us or within.
Making things an issue of right or wrong is not about optimizing results it’s about power, obedience, conformity, and is the primary tool of all abusive relationships.
Inferred Punishment For Non-Compliance
Should not only implies failure will be an indicator something is wrong with us but also that something bad will happen to us as a result, giving even a single minor failure the potential to be life destroying. The consequence doesn’t have to be immediate or violent, the verdict of being wrong can be harmful enough in and of itself as it threatens a separation from our peers for being of lesser worth or value.
If we don’t get the results we should or use the methods we should then our lives going forward will be poisoned by our deviance.
By leveraging a failed outcome into being a failure of the person should makes positive perception and image, and all too often positive self-image, contingent upon compliance with expectations. Success becomes far more about the compliance, the actual result winds up a distant second.
Should implies particular results or methods are expected rather than desired, there is a right and wrong for both results and methods, failure of result denotes a flaw of character, and judgement of success is the sole purview of outside entities allowing no room for difference or the capacity to change our own minds.
It may sound like I’m calling out the full National Guard over a single, common, unobtrusive word. But how often do we find ourselves speaking scornfully about how someone should be behaving? What someone should be wearing? How they should be speaking? What kind of job they should be striving for? How productive should they be during a pandemic? What kind of faith they should be following? What kind of life they should be living?
Genuinely wanting to be married and having kids by the time you’re twenty six is one thing, being made to feel you should be is another.
It can even be done out of a concern for their, or our, best interests. Our underlying intention can be one of wanting them to succeed, to be happy, to have the best of all possible outcomes in their lives, or our own. But should imposes a superseding judgement rendering all assessments of success contingent upon outside approval. And to be clear shouldn’t does all the same dirty work as does their more nakedly judgemental sister term supposed to be.
It’s also important to note the person we often should all over the most is ourselves. It can feel like an act of holding ourselves accountable or attempting to maintain our personal internal standards but scrutinizing ourselves is not the same as judging ourselves. Scrutinizing seeks to learn and improve, judgement infers punishment due to the potential, or likelihood, of wrongdoing. Should doesn’t acknowledge our mistakes or failed attempts, it tells us we were wrong. And the vast majority of shoulds wind up being someone else’s voice if we scrutinize the source of them closely enough.
So how do we avoid shoulding all over ourselves and others? When should comes to mind, ask these questions :
- Am I talking about a method/result or a person?
- Are they asking for my assessment?
- Am I concerned with the method/result or the rightness of it?
- Am I imposing an assumption of the results I would want to see?
And in regards to ourselves there is one more crucial one to add :
- Is it representing my own imperatives, beliefs, and values or someone else’s?
We can offer one another, and ourselves, different perspectives and options. We can even promote the ones we prefer or see as being more beneficial. There is no harm in other and differing perspectives. Warping those perspectives into expectations and requirements makes judgement and consequences the primary concern rather than the actual results themselves.
Should may seem like it is invested in making the best choice. Instead it denies and removes choice under the threat of being devalued.