Musings from my desk

“Should” is the worst word

2023-05-10 20:59:06 -0500 CDT


“Should” is the worst word. When used without context or qualification, it implies the existence of a universal value system to which everyone is beholden. The word “should” instigates feelings of inferiority and inadequacy while providing no concrete value in conversation.

The worst word

Using the word “should” may seem benign, as it is not commonly perceived as offensive or pejorative in most contexts. But what does “should” really mean? Merriam Webster includes what I believe is the most common usage of “should” in normal conversation:

used in auxiliary function to express obligation, propriety, or expediency

And they provide as an example:

you should brush your teeth after each meal

It is worth asking: when does one ever want “to express obligation, propriety, or expediency”? In what circumstances is it beneficial to indicate what someone else (or yourself) is obligated to do? Certainly there are real circumstances in which obligations must be acknowledged and adhered to. I contend, however, that the vast majority of colloquial “should"s are used to (perhaps unintentionally) give credence to some unspoken, overarching principal to which everyone is implicitly bound. Rather than indicating a real life obligation or propriety, it is used lazily to indicate the ways in which someone is expected to behave without ever explicitly stating why one is expected behave this way.

Why do I care if people are casually suggesting that we must adhere to an arbitrary set of unspoken values? Because it frequently has one of two outcomes:

  1. It contributes to feelings of guilt, e.g. “I know I should do it this way but I just don’t have the energy”
  2. It normalizes adherence to an unspoken set of values which may not be applicable to the person or situation in question

What I am advocating instead is active, conscious involvement in choosing how and why to live and act. In addition, I am advocating guilt-free living; surely we should be free to make our own decisions without feeling a weight of judgment from ourselves and others.

Active, conscious living

Choosing to actively engage in your life is one of the most empowering choices you can make. When you decide how to live your life, you ensure that you are living the life you want to live. This is not a defence of hedonism; it is merely an observation that when actions are taken deliberately, they are much more likely to bring purpose and joy to your life.

Too often, people are pressured to behave in ways that do not align with their own values or interests. The result is a banal “mob mentality” in which people behave like their peers simply because they have never considered an alternative. This serves no one; when we individually lose our passions and values, we collectively normalize a homogenized, monocultural response to everything. It compromises what it means to live well.

This might sound extreme, but that is the point. Every unqualified use of the word “should” is a nudge towards conformity with social values that you may or may not agree with. Do yourself a favor and just ask the question: “why should I do this?”

You’ll notice that I specifically mention unqualified use of the word “should”. This is highly important because, as we’ll see, qualified use of the word if perfectly suitable and can be a useful tool to actively engaging in your own life.


The other common effect of the word “should” is a subliminal sense of guilt about one’s choices. If I believe that I should be acting differently from how I am actually acting, then I may rightly feel guilty about acting that way.

Who does this guilt serve? Nobody! Why are we offering ourselves to feelings of guilt when we may not even know why we are supposed to feel guilty in the first place? Do you know why you “should” be doing something? If not, consider the “should” to be illegitimate, and free yourself from whatever expectation was attached to it.

Persistent feelings of guilt can be a major drain on energy and mood. There is no reason to accept guilt into your mind when it isn’t serving a purpose. You owe it to yourself to question the implicit judgments of “should” and remove the guilt of unspoken value systems.

Qualified vs Unqualified “should”

Here’s an example of an unqualified “should”

I should really vacuum my carpet

Here’s an example of a qualified “should”

I should really vacuum my carpet, because I am having guests over later and I want them to be as comfortable as possible

The (hopefully obvious) difference between the two is that an unqualified “should” provides no context for why a particular behavior is expected. The use of the word “should” implies a value judgement - that one choice is superior to another - yet provides no justification for why this is so. In a world of limitless ways to spend our time and energy, how does one know which option is truly superior without considering how the two options align with their values? In the example above, feeling that “I should vacuum” fills me with a sense of guilt and passivity; I will vacuum simply because I feel that I must. But what if I live alone and today is the last day to visit a friend before they move out of town? Surely vacuuming becomes significantly less important! This is the value of actively and consciously choosing your activities. Without questioning the values behind the “should”, it is too easy to blindly accept someone else’s value judgment of how you “should” spend your time.

In contrast, the qualified should makes it extremely clear why the behavior of vacuuming is desired: I value making my guests comfortable; I have guests coming later today; therefore I should vacuum because doing so will increase their comfort. There is no ambiguity about why the task is desirable, and it is immediately clear that the action aligns with your values.

You may think that I’m being extreme - that using “should” in an unqualified way does not compromise one’s values or inspire guilt. For some, that may be true, but I firmly believe that it is a habit that grows more toxic with time. If I never question the “should"s in my life, then I am more likely to conform to whatever norms are thrust upon me in any given situation. Questioning and examining the reasons for your choices is a habit that leads to alignment with one’s values: it contributes to living a meaningful life. Isn’t that what we all want?

Final thoughts