The word we'd all be better off without
Updated: Sep 27
I am a total word geek. I am utterly in love with, and in awe of, language: the power it has to start a war and to bring peace, to motivate, explain, inspire or crush. Words are so versatile; they can be Norwegian poetry, or an instruction manual for a hand blender written in Chinglish ("switch on is need for have motor"), or lyrics to a nursery rhyme, or wedding vows, or a traffic sign in Welsh and English (which has always baffled me because surely all the Welsh people understand the English words exactly as well as the Welsh?).
Lost in translation
I especially love words that exist in other languages that don’t translate to English, because they hint at the fascinating cultural differences of the concepts that the English-speaking world is missing out on.
For example. I have the kanji for the Japanese mono no aware tattooed on my back. There is no exact English translation for it, because there is no concept in the English language for the appreciation of the fragility and impermanence of beauty you feel when, for instance, a transiently perfect cherry blossom fades and tumbles off a tree.
Or how about toska in Russian, which is an anguish without a specific cause, a longing with nothing to long for? Or the word zerang in Farsi which kind of means savvy, but is really more knowing the people and the ways to get things done, how can I put it, not necessarily by the rules?
How mind boggling it is to have collections of pixels on a screen that can evoke those feelings in your heart, or make you vividly see a person in your mind! I told you I was a geek...
I am totally standing next to you
Unfortunately, human beings have taken this precious gift of language that can communicate such complex, beautiful concepts, and, if you will pardon my language (haha), fucked it up. When I saw this article about the garbage language of business, I felt I had found a kindred spirit: the parallel pathing of holistic roadmaps before we operationalize with whoever has the bandwidth. What a load of pretentious gobbledegook when you could just say "we'll try a couple of options with whoever's got the time." What can't we just say that, where did this ridiculous lexicon come from?
Anyone who has worked for me/graciously tolerated my idiosyncrasies knows how much I value words as the things that differentiate us from all other livings things. They will especially tell you how much I hate the word aligned, and “hate” is a word I use very seldom. I am aware that for 99.999% of the population it's an inoffensive word used every day, or not at all, and they wouldn’t give hearing it a second thought. But to me it has a whole heap of connotations, and hearing it uttered at best makes me internally cringe, and at worst presses a big red detonator in my head.
If you tell me you’re aligned with me, you’re telling me that you’re standing next to me. Is that...a good thing? Is there an instance that you could be... perpendicular with me? The root of my intense dislike of this word is my experience that it’s a passive way of suggesting that you agree, but without going as far as committing to it. Are you saying that you agree? If so, why not just say that you agree so it’s unequivocal? If it’s more “well… I don’t actually totally agree,” then that's fine, please say that instead and we can work together to get to a point where we’re both entirely happy.
Aligned (just typing it hurts me!!) is the worst offender on my personal no-fly list, and I could write equivalent rants about, for example, “makes a ton of sense.” But they’re my irrational hot buttons and nobody else’s. What I want to talk about is a word that belongs on the exiled list because its effect is way more detrimental and widespread.
The word we’d be better off without - Should
I am putting the stake in the ground that the word should is, in my opinion, one of the most pernicious in the English language. Should is often to do with other people’s opinions, but without anyone ever identifying exactly who these people are, why they have so many opinions, or what makes them particularly qualified to pass judgment. Or it's about a crushing expectation that you would never put on your best friend or make your worst enemy live with, but will pile on top of yourself with a metaphorical shovel.
This is how should is used: I should get married before I’m 30. I shouldn’t get married this young even though I’m really in love. I should have children when I’m young. I should wait to have children until I’m more financially stable. I should use my time in a pandemic to do something useful. Why am I wasting time learning to paint in a pandemic, I should be working harder to secure my job. I should feel better by now. I shouldn’t think that way. I should be trying harder. I should care less than I do. I should care more than I do.
Just who exactly are “they”?
Where do these messages come from before we internalize them as the facts that they most definitely aren’t, even though they can be so engrained it’s hard to differentiate? Everywhere. Media, friends, politicians, blogs, kids, bosses, partners…. But also nowhere in particular. They come from “they” and “everyone” and “anybody”, as in “I don’t want anybody to think I’m not grateful, they might be upset with me, everyone will think I’m just out for myself”
Read each of the should statements above. Do any of them make you feel good? Inspire you? Empower you? Liberate you? No. They are either about risk aversion for a bleak future that might never happen; or failing to live up to the expectations (of person unspecified) that aren’t necessarily even possible. The result is a weight on your shoulders that makes you gradually sink to the ground, or the draining feeling of your energy disappearing as you justify to yourself why you are “allowed” to defy them.
The agony of listening to the should voice
I have written before about depression. The self-torturing thoughts that play through a depressed person’s brain are so often about should. I shouldn’t feel this way, my life is great on paper. I should be over it by now. I shouldn’t burden other people with these feelings. I should be able to just snap out of it. All completely preposterous, you can no more talk yourself out of depression, or rationalize it away, or make it fit into a schedule, than you can do a virus or a broken leg; it takes however long to recover as it takes, there is no should. But the inability to feel the way you tell yourself you should, when you tell yourself you should, makes you feel a failure at a time when you already feel life is impossible.
I live in perpetual awe of working mothers. Not the Instagram facade, where kids sit diligently at their virtual learning eating a nourishing selection of seeds and dried fruits, while mum checks how her beef Wellington is doing, the one she knocked together from scratch on a Wednesday night, just after closing a deal with the Seattle office from the kitchen table. I mean the real version, the constant juggling of two fulltime jobs, and the endless internal chorus of should. One of my closest friends told me something that made my heart ache: that no matter where she is, she feels guilty, because she should be somewhere else. At work, she is missing out on time with her kids, she should be with them. With her family, she should be at work, because she doesn’t want to look uncommitted. And heaven forfend she thinks about something just for her! She shouldn’t be spending time on something unproductive like, say, reading a book when the house looks like a bomb has hit it and she’s got a proposal to write, and all the kids have seen of her this week is her saying, I’m sorry, this meeting is overrunning, can you do your own lunch?
The workplace should
The should voice rears its ugly head in every facet of our lives, and careers are no exception. For example: I should take the promotion. I should want more responsibility. I should do a stint in Treasury. I should work on a B2B business because all my experience so far is B2C. I should go client-side, I’ve been in an agency a long time. I’ve been in my role for 3 years and although I really love it, I should be looking to make a move. I’m actually really happy being a Director for the moment because I’ve got young kids, but I should say I aspire to be a VP because that’s what they want to hear.
I’m not saying that if someone has given you good career advice about to how to build your experience to get the job of your dreams, then you should ignore it if you don’t like it. If, for instance, you want to be a GM of B2B business then there’s no arguing that you quite likely need some relevant experience outside of B2C. But if you’re doing it because you should do it, and you can’t explain exactly why, or what it’s going to do to make you more fulfilled or help you achieve, then… why would you? But people so often feel they need to make career choices based on their should voice, and they’re not normally ones that bring a whole lot of fulfilment or satisfaction.
Should gets everywhere. I’m not going to go deep into: should get married, should stay married, should have kids, should get a car I can’t afford, should go into the family business, shouldn’t date someone younger than me, should offer to have my mother-in-law live with us… because we could be here all day and you get the idea.
How about could instead of should?
I’m not proposing that we all wander through life doing exactly what we want without any regard for anyone else, nor ignoring the fact that there are real responsibilities we all live with. If you have a hefty mortgage to pay and you don’t want to uproot your family, I’m not going to tell you that you can go ahead and quit a high paying job and fulfil your lifetime dream of becoming an artist and to hell with the consequences. Life has trade offs; I’m not pretending everyone can have it all. But what you can do is consciously move your mindset away from one soaked with guilt and crushing expectations, to somewhere that's instead about evaluating possibilities.
Because it would be so wonderful if we could all just stop should-ing. But that in itself is an unrealistic expectation to put on ourselves, because consistently beign able to ignore a lifelong intrusive voice is pretty impossible. How about starting by at least noticing when we’re doing it? Every time we hear the word should, asking – why should I? What happens if I don’t? And if there is actually a really good reason, go ahead and listen. I should remember to buy my sister a birthday present, for instance, that one wouldn’t end well if I ignored it.
But there’s a step beyond that I’ve been trying to train myself to do. What if instead of telling yourself what you should do, reframe it to what you could do?
I should pick my workout regime back up, I feel so bad I’ve let it slip this week
I could do a workout today and I’d feel so proud of myself
Or instead of
I should stay at my job. I don’t really like it, but it’s got good benefits and the people are OK
Let’s make it:
I could look at see what else is around. Then I would have a better idea of what the options are and how well off I actually am where I am.
I don't know about you, but that feels SO MUCH BETTER. There's something a bit magical about it. All of a sudden, there are choices, not burdens. I challenge you to try and see if it makes a difference. What I mean is, I think you really should.