Never Say This To Anyone, Ever

I saw a shocking advertisement the other day. Not one designed to cause distress, nor an appeal for a good cause. The advertiser just wanted me to buy a lottery ticket.

The presenter asked, “Are you doing the lottery?” and then said, “You should be.” My blood boiled.

I have nothing against lotteries, or even against gambling in moderation. After all, I will be happily rich when I hit the jackpot with my one weekly ticket.

However, to suggest to someone that they are somehow failing in some unspecified duty by not gambling is, I believe, immoral and potentially harmful.

I blame the word “should.”

I would like to remove that word from every dictionary, along with its equally insidious, creepy friend, “ought.”

I read the other day that some people struggle for approval from others, while others work harder at avoiding disapproval. The second group, the ones who struggle hard to avoid disapproval, suffer most from “should” torment, but others are not immune.

Our longing to avoid censure means that many of us carry rucksacks-full of guilt on our backs. We may be worried about what other people think or just about the differences between the way we would like to be and the way we really behave. 

The fear of failure to meet our internal goals dogs many of us. We find it hard to avoid our condemnation of our own conduct and we have to work hard to stay positive.

Every time someone tells me that I “should exercise more ” or “ought to recycle” they tap directly into my store of guilt. 

Using “should” can be an easy way of persuading, without taking responsibility for the consequences.

“You should only feed your baby every four hours,” a doctor told a new mother. The baby cried after three hours. What was the mother to do, torn between the guilt of withholding food from her child and the guilt of failing to do her duty, as set out by a person in authority? 

The doctor could have avoided causing that problem. If she had said, “I advise feeding every four hours if possible,” the baby’s mother would have felt free to make her own informed decision. 

Or, if there was some unusual medical issue that meant this particular baby would be in danger if fed earlier, the doctor could have made that clear by saying, “You must feed every four hours.”

When you talk to your child, your partner, your colleague or your friend, you can avoid imposing a guilt trip.

You may be tempted to tell your child, “I think you should let Michael play with the train.” This is unfair. It puts all the responsibility on the child. Instead, be brave. If you really want your child to give the train to Michael, say “It’s Michael’s turn. Give him the train now,” and make sure he obeys you. If you’re not sure, why not let the children sort it out for themselves?

Instead of, “You should read that book,” try “I enjoyed that book and I think you might, too.”

And when someone tries to sell you something by saying you “should” buy it, remember they are trying to manipulate you through guilt and make up your own mind. 

More on making language work for you in these posts

Have you ever found yourself persuaded by someone making you feel guilty? I'd love to hear your story.

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Frances Evesham: on the run around Europe for years, with only a husband, three children and a succession of opinionated cats to keep me out of trouble. Somerset stopped me in my tracks. Now I walk in the country and breathe sea air. I will get around to cleaning the house soon.

I've been a speech therapist, a professional communication fiend and a road sweeper. I sometimes work in the criminal courts to uphold fair questioning of people with special needs.

I smell the roses, lavender and rosemary as I cook with a glass of wine in one hand and a bunch of chillies in the other. Writing historical romances and books on communication leaves enough time to enjoy bad jokes and puns and wish I’d kept on with the piano lessons.