Wednesday, September 21, 2011

There Is No Should

In this post, I want to highlight a particularly nasty word that sneaks into our vocabulary, and that, unfortunately, is deeply embedded in our culture. This is the word should. The essence of the word "should" is one person telling another person what to do. Should says: do it this way, the right way, or else you're doing it wrong. Should passes judgment, but without providing information.

The word should appears all over the place in tea culture:
  • You should brew this tea with water at such-and-such temperature.
  • You should try this tea, because it's so good.
  • You should store your tea this way.
  • You should look for this quality or that when buying tea.
  • You should use this brewing vessel for brewing this type of tea.
  • ...and of course, the infamous: you should not do X, Y, Z, or W.

...and the list goes on. First of all, I want to own up to the fact that I'm guilty of making some of these statements, both in my speech and my writing. My project to eliminate the word should is a work-in-progress, which I will get to below. But that said, I want to explain why I think these recommendations are problematic.

What's wrong with the word should?

Some statements are highly subjective. Take the statement: "You should try this tea, because it's so good." Although in some cases there is loose consensus about the relative quality of teas among certain small groups of people, teas are not universally "good" or "bad"...these are subjective statements. And yes, I have some objective data to back this statement up with a very strong argument.

On RateTea, I have programmed a matching system that allows users to compare their tastes in tea with each other, a lot like the way online dating sites calculate match percentages for compatibility of potential romantic partners. If you have rated enough teas in common with other users, you will be able to utilize this feature by visiting your profile or the profile of other users. What is my highest similarity with another user on RateTea? This would be 67%, with Marlena of Tea for Today, followed by 65% for the user MimiG; the next closest matches are in the 50%'s. 67% means that, if each of us try two teas, we tend to prefer the same tea only 67% of the time. And this is with the user on the site who has the closest match to my tastes.

Tastes are diverse! When you say "you should try/buy/drink this tea", you might be wrong. A safer statement to make would be: "I really love this tea, it is one of my favorites.", or if you really feel that it's likely the person would like it, say: "Based on what I know you like, I think you might really like this tea." -- and then leave the person to make their own decision, without telling them what they should or shouldn't do.

My own personal battle with should:

When the season of lent comes around, I often have tried out giving up various things, inspired by others around me doing the same. Usually, my friends seem to give up foods, and sometimes people give up Facebook, or some other piece of technology. This past lent, I tried giving up the word "should". I was inspired to do so by an observation I made about my own psyche, that I had an internal dialogue that was often based on what I should or shouldn't do, and also based on what other people should or shouldn't do.

When I used the word should on myself, I would often feel guilty when I didn't do things that I had told myself I "should" do. I also found that using the word should on myself did not actually provide any additional motivation for me to do (or not do) certain things.

When I used the word should on others, I would often feel angry or frustrated when other people did not act the way I felt that they "should". I also found that telling people that they "should" do something never motivated anyone do to what I wanted. I often found that the word made other people resistant and closed-off.

Replacing the word should:

Getting rid of the word should proved to be a very difficult task. It took much longer than the season of lent to work on. I enlisted the help of numerous friends and asked them to call me out whenever I used the word. I found that I was using it incessantly, not just in my head, but out loud...especially when I was part of a group that was deciding what to do: "Should we do this, should we do that?" But I quickly developed ways to reword things without using this word, and I found that these other ways of wording things had the benefit of greatly improved specificity, and clarification of what I was trying to communicate:
  • Sometimes we say "should" when we mean "want to". "I should eat now." might mean: "I want to eat now." In a group, asking: "Should we do this?" sometimes can be replaced by the clarifying question: "Do you want to do this?" or the statement: "I would like to do this." But by being more specific about our desires, and asking other people to clarify their own wants and desires, we gain more information and ultimately make it easier for everyone in the group to be happy. And when alone, using the language of "want" rather than "should", we get in touch with our own desires, and help meet our own needs and do what we really want instead of what we feel a vague obligation to do.
  • Sometimes "should" implies something that might go wrong if the direction or instruction is not followed. Often, there is a specific reason for the need, and clarifying it makes the statement more powerful, and a better motivator. Instead of saying: "You should store your tea in airtight containers." you can say: "If you do not store your tea in airtight containers, the aroma can escape and the tea can lose much of its flavor." The second statement provides more information, and is actually more convincing or compelling in terms of motivating people to store their tea in airtight containers. But because the word "should" is not always associated with need, and is sometimes associated with subjective recommendations, it is often ignored when used to give advice...which leads into the next observation.
  • Sometimes the word "should" is totally superfluous, and describes a vague sense of obligation that is an artifact of some belief or thought that really does not apply in our current situation. An's feel like you "should" eat, out of habit, but you're not hungry. Maybe you ate a big, late lunch? Should you eat, if your body is telling you that you're full? Or, back to our earlier should brew this tea with 180 degree water. Really? I brewed it with boiling water, compared to steeping with 180 degree water, and I like it better with boiling water.

More resources:

If you liked what you read here, there are a number of good resources, blog posts, and articles on the web about the benefits of avoiding the use of the word should. One of my favorites is Tiny Buddha's How to Enjoy the Journey More by Eliminating the Word Should. There's another good post about should on The Unheard Word. I also found another very simple, but interesting take on the subject in a post titled Replace the word SHOULD with COULD (now only available on I found all of these to be good resources for getting more perspective on this topic, and they are all relatively quick reads.

How about you?

Do you use the word should? Have you worked on eliminating or reducing your use of this word? Have you seen any positive results from avoiding the use of this word? Do you know of any good writings / online resources on the word should besides those I've found here? Let me know!


  1. So basically what you are saying is that I should stop using the word should...

  2. Haha...I know you're making a joke, but your comment actually highlights something about the psyche of many people in the U.S. (and other cultures as well): people read shoulds where there aren't any.

    Notice that I nowhere say that anyone "should" stop using the word should. Rather:

    (1) I share my personal experience of how I found it beneficial to stop using the word should.

    (2) I give some explanations of harm that can come from the word should.

    (3) I give some explanations of the benefits.

    So, what I'm really saying is that some people might find that there are benefits to stopping using the word should. Which is not the same thing as saying that anyone "should" stop using it.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Alex! My therapist tells me this all the time. I found your site by stumbling on it when I searched "There is no spoon." I have found it helpful in my life. Thanks for the post. Looks like a cool blog.

    1. Haha, wow, that's random! I'm always surprised by how people find my blog (I notice all sorts of random keywords showing up when I look at my data on how people arrive here from search engines).

      Glad you found it helpful!

  4. Family and friends evoke "shoulds," even if those are unpleasant. Also, it's easy to fall into the "they should have done this to or for me." Great way to break free of the mental bondage.