The Worst Word: Should

Respect That by Alex NoriegaI love language and all its power. That’s why I believe there are few words that are truly off limits. Everything has a context and a place in the world of human expression.

But with that great power, of course, comes great responsibility.

When people throw words around without any concern or thought as to their influence, it causes far more damage than most are willing to admit. And no term is more guilty of this than the dreaded word: should.

“Are we should-ing all over ourselves?”
- Carrie Bradshaw, Sex & The City, Season 6, Episode 15

Should is a word of arrogance, conceit and fear. It’s the word used when a person insists he knows what’s best for someone else. It’s the word you hear when a person is afraid to look inward. It’s the word uttered when a person’s pride matters more than his ability to relate to a fellow human being.

And it’s no wonder the word is all around us. Some take great pleasure in telling us what we should be doing. We should live a healthier lifestyle. We should practice a specific philosophy. We should be more like them. The speaker operates under the illusion that he’s trying to help, but in reality, he simply hopes to make himself feel better about his own choices.

Despite this shallow insistence that there is only one way to reach the mountaintop, there is something worse than telling others what they need to do in their lives to win approval. Many vocally tell their families, friends and strangers what they should be doing, but silently tell themselves that the person in the mirror isn’t worthy of approval until all the things expected of us are checked off as well.

“What does it mean that there is no Mende word for ‘should‘?” – Roger Sherman Baldwin, Amistad

Life isn’t about waiting to accept who we are once we become the complete picture of our perfect selves. Should will always be the bane of our existence if we keep using it to hammer our conscience into a black hole of guilt.

You should blog every day. You should use a standing desk. You should pitch larger markets. You should live up to someone else’s expectations.

In the end, we diminish our potential for greatness every time we berate ourselves about how we should behave. Arrogantly assuming that there’s only one right path, we raise our expectations by lowering our self-esteem.

We are all works in progress. Stop assuming that the person sitting next to us on the bus or across from us at the dinner table is progressing toward the same point as ourselves. And if that person is attempting to reach the same goals, consider the possibility they’re doing it at their own pace.

Personally, I take great care to avoid using the word should, including rewriting sentences and self-editing verbal replies in mid-sentence. I do my best to not use it unless absolutely no other word will do.

I realized a long time ago that the journey we take is always going to be filled with some regrets. A life worth living has peaks and valleys, and most importantly, benefits and consequences. A path marked with all the things we “should” be doing will only leave us feeling bitter and unfulfilled.

But I won’t tell you to mirror my worldview or embrace the choices you make regardless of criticism because I, too, am a work in progress. My hope is that by listening to my intuition, reasoning through my objections and adapting to my circumstances I will be left feeling far more at peace than spending a lifetime aspiring to someone else’s idea of success.

Find your own path, but stop using the worst word. The power it wields over you and others is unworthy of your life and the goals you hope to achieve. And in the end, only you know what you should do.

Do you have a worst word?
How does it feel when others use it?

Candace Nicholson

Candace is a freelance writer, editor and blogger covering arts & culture, healthcare and community. When she’s not pitching magazines, proofreading pharma copy, or penning blog posts, she’s a regular contributor to LAFRA’s Widows, Orphans & Disabled Firemen’s Fund.

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  • Katrina on November 8, 2011 at 9:45 pm says...


    Great post! I sometimes think that the half of the media only exists because of that word… think how many fluff Yahoo Health articles or self-improvement reality shows wouldn't exist if we stopped using that word. Not to mention the guilt-inducing phone calls from well-meaning family members!

    As for my "worst word," I feel pretty strongly about people who misuse the word "retarded." Much like the use of the word "gay" to refer to something dumb, I thought we were over this by now and I'm shocked every time someone uses it in a negative light. I usually hang out with people who are enlightened enough to avoid both words, and now suddenly I'm working at a company populated by aging frat guys and their female counterparts, and I swear I hear those words flung around every day by people who are old enough to know better. (Lol – I almost wanted to write "by people who SHOULD be old enough to know better.")

    • Candace Nicholson on November 9, 2011 at 1:05 pm says...


      Hi Katrina! Long time, no talk. :-)

      Like I mentioned, there are few words that I think are truly off limits. "Should" isn't evil or wrong; it's the sentiment behind it that makes me bristle. It's that constant need some have to correct people and tell them how to live their lives. It's the assumption that their opinion matters most.

      But when planned accordingly, I think "should" can be used effectively. I have a post on my blog titled "5 Posts Every Freelance Blogger Should Stop Writing." In it, I'm snarky and impatient, but ultimately honest about how overused certain topics are in the freelance blogging world. Since I don't use the word often, it carries more power and respect when I say or write it. I'm not sure people ever think about that aspect of vocabulary.

      I understand your aversion to "retarded," but I've defended its use in the past because it seems like the "cause celebre" recently when it comes to political correctness. Which I'm not knocking by the way. But I've heard people jump all over someone for using the word "retarded," but then they'll turn around and use the words "lame" and "crazy" with a second thought.

      Up until about 30 years ago, "lame" was only used to describe the physically weak and/or handicapped. Now think about how we use it today. And the overuse of the word "crazy" to describe any celebrity that behaves in a manner we don't understand or empathize with really annoyed me to no end a few years back.

      If the use of "retarded" implies that we're making fun of people who are mentally disabled, then why is it okay to ridicule the psychologically unstable? Is it a holdover from the days when people used to take Sunday trips to the asylums to laugh and mock the inmates through the bars? I have trouble backing the idea that "retarded" is verboten when so many see no problem using "lame" and "crazy" for the same purpose.
      My recent post The Worst Word: Should

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