The longer I’ve been a writer, the more I’ve noticed how carelessly we use words, often throwing them around without recognition of the sharp edges that cause so much harm to others and to ourselves. The ways to use language thoughtlessly are virtually unlimited, but I suggest that certain words consistently tend to have a negative effect that far exceeds our awareness. Allow me to list and describe just a few of them.
Oh, this word is a real killer. “You should have . . .” “I should have known better.” “I should have done . . .” And we use many variations on this word: “How could you have done . . .” which translates to, “You should have.” Or “I can’t believe you . . .”
As soon as we say that someone—including ourselves—“should have” done something, we’re declaring that:
- We know so much about them—essentially everything, in fact, from birth to the present—that we are qualified to judge what they know, or what they knew at the time of the action in question.
- We know so much about them that we are qualified to judge what they are/were capable of doing—intellectually, physically, morally, emotionally, spiritually, and so on.
- We are qualified to share our vastly superior judgment with them and others.
The arrogance of such claims is stratospheric, and the hurtful intrusiveness to others equally so. The truth is, only on rare occasions—if any—do we have enough knowledge or moral superiority to claim that we know what anyone should have done, often including ourselves.
Moreover, when we say what someone should do, there is the strong unspoken implication that if they don’t do that thing—or didn’t do it in the case of “should have”—they are or will be defective in uncounted and unspeakable ways. At least one of those defects is that they should have read our mind to know the correct choice or behavior. We say “should” by way of a command or final judgment—placing ourselves in a distinctly superior position to others—which makes people feel small and even worthless. “Should” becomes a vicious and demeaning weapon.
What can we say instead of “should?” The answer is relatively easy, since there are few words more destructive than “should.” Following are a few examples:
- “Would you be willing to do X?” Simple requests are often overlooked as a very effective way of getting what we want, because we were trained from childhood to control, criticize, and berate people.
- “I would prefer that in the future you do this another way. Let me describe it.” This is an expression of preference, not criticism, nor an unreasonable demand that they read your mind.
- “The way you did X didn’t turn out the way I would have preferred. Would you be willing to do Y instead?” This is a clear request, not a condemnation, as would be delivered with “should.” It also includes a brief description of what you don’t want, in the hope that this will prevent a repetition of the ineffective action.
- “My experience is that when I do X—and that when I’ve observed others doing X—the result is less than I would have hoped for. It doesn’t work well for others either. If I do Y instead, it seems to work better.” That might be enough to make your point, or if you’re in a supervisory position, you might then ask or instruct the other person to try behavior Y instead of X. This is a gentler version of the option immediately above.
- “How do you feel about the results of this action/project/ task?” This gives the other person an opportunity to identify for themselves the flaws in the results. If they can’t do that, you could specify what you would like to be different the next time.
See “Should” above. The use of “shouldn’t” is insignificantly different from the use of “should.”
In future blogs we’ll discuss more words that have a much greater negative effect than we realize or intend.