The Many Functions of Should
"Should" is a word we use without thinking. Maybe we should think about "should" more.
If one word could stand in for all the advice we've ever received, that word is should. Should is the sound of family expectations, social comparison, religion, advertising, and countless other stories about who we ought to be or what we ought to do.
Sometimes these stories are benign—even beneficial. For instance, “I should pay my bills on time” signifies a story about responsibility, independence, and organization. It has a rational basis (i.e., maintaining one’s credit score or avoiding late fees) as well as a social basis (i.e., upholding agreements). If that's a story and set of values that resonate with you, stating that should isn't so much an imposition as a nudge.
But other times, the stories compete with our own self-knowledge or values. Should can cut us off from self-inquiry by inserting a normative belief we've learned not to question. Using the same example, "I should pay my bills on time," should normalizes and justifies business decisions that penalize those who don't pay on time.1 It creates a moral code for me to follow at the same time that it absolves companies that use predatory lending policies and exacerbate inequality.2
How should functions
Should reveals a bias. The story it points to is the ideal. It’s a moral judgment about what’s good or right. If that belief lines up with what one actually believes or values, it’s not a problem. But if that belief counters or supersedes one’s actual beliefs or values, well, then it’s that much harder to ignore the should.
“I should put in some extra hours this week.”
Bias: Working extra hours ensures I finish the project—finishing is good.
Should appeals to a shared system of beliefs and values—even when one doesn't exist. It assumes a lot about our identities, worldviews, and desires. It's one thing for me to apply should to myself and another for me to apply should to someone else.
“You should move out of your parents’ house.”
Assumption: Being an adult means living in your own place.
Should opens a gap between our current situation and a supposedly ideal situation. But is that ideal situation really ideal? Is it ideal for me but not for you? Who or what supplied that ideal? And for what purpose?
“I should write a book.”
Ideal: Being an author
Should points toward a deficit. It's an admission of a sort of wrongdoing or neglect. The should exists because there is something wrong with me or something I did. What does the should seek to atone for? Why?
“I should go back to school.”
Deficit: Not enough education or credentials
Should enforces norms. In both overt and covert ways, should steps in to supply a norm when it’s being undermined. Norms concerning race, gender, and class can lead to particularly pernicious shoulds.
“Maybe I should settle down and start a family.”
Norm: Women are meant to be caregivers.
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Making a should list
Often, at the end of an interview or a talk where I've gone deep into the political and economic narratives that shape how we work or set goals, I'm asked where a person who is new to these ideas can start. My answer is always to start by making a list of shoulds.
Jot down every time a statement pops into your mind that includes the words should, supposed to, or ought. Then, later, ask yourself about the beliefs and values those shoulds are based on. Consider what ideals are contained within each statement. Articulate the story each should is telling.
And then examine where those beliefs, values, ideals, or stories come from. Maybe your should originates deep within your family's expectations. Maybe it grows out of your religion or worldview. It could be the product of a dominant media narrative or an economic policy affecting your life. Maybe (probably?) it's rooted in advertising of one sort or another.
Shoulds aren't all bad. They often indicate an opportunity for positive action and personal growth. But those opportunities must align with our beliefs and values to be of any use to us. If our shoulds, instead, emerge from stories that aren't our own, they can indeed be harmful.
The only way to distinguish a should we should and a should we shouldn't is to take a closer look.
I’m not, of course, telling you what you should believe about paying your bills on time! It’s just an example of a how an innocuous little should can turn out to have many dimensions.