Four Words That Make Me Suspicious of Myself When I Say Them

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There are a few words that raise a red flag when I catch myself saying them, at least when I’m not totally preoccupied.

Not that all instances of these words are dubious, but I do find I that whenever I need to make use of them, there’s a good chance I’m being at least a little presumptuous, simple-minded, or sneaky. They raise a similar red flag when I hear or read them too.

They aren’t “bad” words, but they do lend themselves to a certain kind of self-deception. They often hint at more going on.

“Wish”

I find myself using the word “wish” when I’ve decided I don’t like something the way it is, yet I’m not actually doing anything about it. There’s no real reason to declare my wishes. Whenever I start a sentence with “I just wish…” feel free to ignore me, I’m only wasting your time. My whiny face has probably made you tune out anyway.

Whenever I let the phrase “I wish” escape my mouth, all I really have to say is this: “I’m not happy with things the way they are. I would be happy if they were like this. So there.”

Not only is it useless for changing the circumstances, but it reinforces the myth to which I’ve momentarily fallen prey: that my happiness is dependent on my circumstances only and has nothing to do with my attitude. It’s a bitter little plea that life isn’t what I want it to be in this particular moment, and a dead giveaway that I’m not prepared to do anything about it right now.

Wishing is a desperate, self-defensive behavior. It gives you a little hit of relief from a reality you don’t want to deal with, but it sure doesn’t move things along.

Of course, in those moments, I’m too consumed by my fantasies to see that my attitude is usually the biggest and most damning feature of the present circumstances. If my attitude sucks, the circumstances suck. But acknowledging that would mean I have to be responsible for it, and it’s easier to instead wish for the cavalry to appear on the horizon and save me.

“Try”

I don’t know about you, but I know I insert the word “try” into a sentence when I’m not actually willing to take on the responsibility of promising I’ll do something. Yet I’m still willing to pretend I at least have the intention of doing it — somewhere in my mind.

I’ll try to call and ask about that. I’ll try to exercise every day. I’ll try to get it done on Friday after work.

It means: I might end up doing that if it’s easier than I expect it to be.

Try is the ultimate catch-all qualifier for anyone looking to commit absolutely nothing to a particular effort. It’s not even particularly sneaky anymore. We know what it means.

It’s so over-quoted on the web, but it’s too fitting to leave out Master Yoda’s advice from back in 1980: Do or do not. There is no “try”. George Lucas must have stolen that from someone. It’s too profound for a muppet.

“Should”

You should clean this place up. I should exercise more. They should make this illegal. They should fix this wonky table.

Like wish, should is often used as a way of placing responsibility for your quality of life on other people or the universe at large. Whenever humans encounter some kind of inconvenience or difficulty, the first thought is always something resembling “Wouldn’t it be nice if this moment was easier than it is?” The mind searches for a way to characterize oneself as the victim of some unthinkable injustice, and a should-based thought is born. In our mind’s eye we step momentarily into an alternate universe where everything feels just and right to us.

One of the more common forms is “They should outlaw [whatever thing is most unpleasant to you at the moment].” I’ve even heard people say (including myself) things like, “Anybody who cuts in line should be shot.” Clearly many of these should-reactions are not meant to be honest appeals for a better world, just a little fantasy of a parallel world where this particular problem isn’t happening to you right now, because in that world things are the way they should be.

Most shoulds are really just desperate pleas for your moment to be less troublesome to you, whether your trouble stems from a tiny inconvenience (such as someone parking too close to you) or a profoundly disturbing aspect of human behavior (such as violence.)

Now, just because we recognize how absurd it is to respond to troubling circumstances only by “shoulding” about people and circumstances around us, it doesn’t mean that the situation is fair, or that we can’t do anything to change it. The problem might represent a real, glaring injustice that causes a lot of suffering for people, and which could potentially be changed with some effort.

Yet the first reaction to any troubling situation is almost always to simply declare that this moment *should* be something closer to what would sit right with you, and most of the time we’re not prepared to do any more than just say so.

So in my wiser, more centered moments, I don’t bring out the word should unless I’m prepared to make it the way it ‘should’ be. Usually I’m not.

“Deserve”

This one can get ugly. I’ve almost cut this one out of my vocabulary completely because I’ve found so few instances where it isn’t absurdly presumptuous.

Any smoker who gets cancer deserves it. Criminals deserve whatever happens to them in prison. Charlie Sheen deserves an overdose.

What does a person have to do to “deserve” some horrible fate? How does one know what amount of “caused pain” warrants X amount of “deserved pain” and why do we assume that we (or anyone) are in a position to make a meaningful assessment of it?

Even among reasonable people, deserve gets out of hand quickly, because we tend to make our most sweeping assessments when we’re really worked up emotionally. I’m not a violent person, but at times I’ve convinced myself that somebody who tags a fence deserves a serious beating, that careless people deserve to get in horrible accidents, that drug addicts deserve misery.

Deserve is really just a more specific type of should, one which refers to what fates people ought to experience. Most violence is rationalized with “deserve”.

Deserve also serves as a way of becoming more comfortable with tragedy by making a “closed loop” of it. Sure, that guy got run over by a forklift, but he was being pretty careless, so…

The coldest and most thoughtless form is is “Anyone who _______ deserves ______.” We laugh at the Darwin Awards, as if any instance of exceptionally poor judgment really deserves death. Anyone dumb enough to get soaked for thousands in a sweepstakes phone scam deserves it, right? Most of them are senior citizens.

It’s gratifying to decide what people deserve, particularly if we know nothing about them except for the one behavior we witnessed or heard about. This is what mainstream news is all about. The typical story is like this: “Something terrible happened today, many people suffering, who deserves the blame?”

And that’s the fun part, the payoff. The discussion surrounding who deserves to be ostracized, fired or killed is always more attractive than the one about how we can help. This kind of talk is now so pervasive on television, it’s become a new pastime: the self-satisfaction of attributing blame to people we don’t know over great distances, working only from tiny slivers of single-sourced information.

The more distant we are from the person, the easier it is to decide what they deserve. If the smoker who dies of cancer is some guy on the news, he deserves it. But if he’s your uncle or your dad, you know it’s never as simple as that.

***

Have you noticed any other words you say (or hear) that raise a red flag for you?

R

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

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{ 84 Comments }

glblank May 8, 2011 at 11:31 am

Deserve. I find the addition of this word deserving criticism, so here goes. We are all deserving. Americans “should” be acutely aware of this. Our Declaration of Independence says so. I “wish” more of us “would” be aware of this, after all it is a derivative of should. Is it not our “wishfullness” that motivates our actions for the common good? Is “try” not that what we do until we succeed or are we all so narcissistic as to think we get everything right the first time. That being stated, I made the mistake of tossing a corrective tome at Andrew Sullivan when he referenced this article which I attributed to Herman Cain. Oops, try, try again. My point is that we are all fallible and each of these words suggests introspection as often as derision of a oft invisible villan and that we all need to rethink the message. My word gripes are the semantic malapropisms, you know the usual, irregardless, orientated for oriented to name but a few.

David May 9, 2011 at 8:32 pm

The point is made quite explicitly in the article that not all instances of these words are used in a dubious or unuseful way, and that these examples are only reminders to look at your own motivations for saying what you say.

I’ll also take this chance to remind you that we are not all Americans, and the internet is not American. That tiny detail may make you better able to get through to people in your noble quest to rid the internet of semantic malapropisms.

Who are these poor, unlikeable souls who travel the web dumping pedantic comments? Are they like this in real life? Anyone know?

Robert May 8, 2011 at 6:18 pm

“As a _insert demographic_, _insert statement that supposes that the speaker speaks for all of demographic_”

Very commonly used by religious persons to justify statements that would otherwise label the speaker as irrational or a jerk. Typically meaningless because the speaker is usually just stating what would be his/her own opinion regardless of demographic.

Eric G May 9, 2011 at 9:17 am

You’ve obviously seriously underestimated muppets.

Jason May 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm

A fine essay! One of these danger words for me is Hope. Apologies to the president, who ran a brilliant marketing campaign on the basis of that word (but who is powerless to make a big difference, that’s a whole ‘nother topic).

I was first alerted to the treachery of Hope by an excellent article a couple years ago in AOPA Pilot, a magazine published by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. The author used a powerful anecdote to illustrate how hope does not serve us in matters that are governed by cold hard facts. We see that hope has no place in the aviation context, where the results of misplaced hope can be especially unforgiving, nor in any other place that really matters.

The reason hope keeps rearing its awful head is that some of the decisions to be made in life-critical contexts impose unpleasant compromises. In flying, perhaps it means canceling an important trip. The most famous light plane accident I think is the one that killed JFK Jr. and his family all dolled up on their way to a wedding. No doubt, hope was a main ingredient of his decision to attempt a flight in poor weather, at night, over water, with insufficient training and his loved ones aboard. (Ego was another factor, but we tend to talk about that even less than we talk about hope.)

The toxicity of hope has been further impressed upon me during my recent training as a firefighter. It would easy to hope a structure won’t collapse, to focus more on going inside then on the actual risk factors. At least, in that enterprise, sometimes there’s sometimes a real justification for the risk. But still, the decision must be made rationally and NOT on the basis of hope.

Since learning about hope in these two contexts I find my ears prick up in alarm any time I hear it, and even with little things it’s often a harbinger of waste or failure. Just the opposite of its connotation!

Snappysocks May 10, 2011 at 2:29 pm

The word that I take great care to NOT abuse is FEEL. If you replace the word FEEL with THINK in a sentence and it still makes sense, then it’s not a thought, not a feeling.

Ana May 10, 2011 at 10:01 pm

I have felt that way for a long time but have not realized it until I read this post, especially about the word “try”. Whenever I say “I’ll try[...]” an alarm goes off in my head saying “Lazy, lazy lazy. You know you’re not going to do that, so why even mention it?”. It’s like me telling myself that I’ll never do what I just said I would try to do, and I never even wanted to, but I said I would try to lie to myself and others and make it seem like I’m doing anything and that I’m responsible because “at least I’m trying”. I hate that word and I just realized it. Most of that also applies for the word “should”.
Thank you for the post.

Inquisitum May 10, 2011 at 11:39 pm

“If I don’t do it someone else will”
David, even though I found your essay interesting, somehow through the whole page I was thinking “Getting Better at Being Human” has to be a bit deeper than sniping at semantics and dare I say navel gazing.

David May 11, 2011 at 12:14 am

Ooh, but you did say! How daring. It’s a blog post, not an essay. One of two hundred or so on this site. The internet is a big place, so if there’s nothing here for you at a quick glance, then you best move on cowboy. No need to leave your droppings as you pass.

Kris May 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm

I got to this post late – it has been crazy in my house lately moving and wife surgery and all kinds of things! However I wanted to relate to you that the post on Deserve really strikes a nerve with me related to my workplace…

It seems lately that there is a real sense of “Witch hunt” occurring in my organization for people who make mistakes that hurt the business in some way. I work in an organization that is focusing on “Deserve” for these people who are making non-willful mistakes concerning their job performance.

I have been in meetings where this leader is calling for an employee to be terminated for poor performance without any regard to information concerning that employees life or circumstances or education level/training etc.etc… It seems to me that focusing on the real why/how information concerning these employees and their mistakes is completely second hand to the self-satisfaction that members of the organization feel when they say that the person who made the error/mistake deserves to be terminated.

Having your ability to provide for your family stripped from you in this climate seems like a steep price to pay for poor performance to me… Mabe I am a bleeding heart though.

LittleMsgOfHope May 19, 2011 at 2:25 am

♥ spot.on!

Sally Thompson September 29, 2011 at 11:28 am

Very inspiring words to say! I really appreciate the value of your blog.. Keep up the good work!

Dave December 13, 2011 at 9:27 am

I’m glad I accidentally stumbled upon this fantastic post. I especially enjoyed the convicting section on “deserve.” I honestly haven’t read all the comments above, so pardon me if this is redunant, but my suggestions are: “need,” “have to” and “I’m sorry but”

Megan March 13, 2013 at 9:58 am

“Eventually” “Someday”

sally September 22, 2013 at 2:34 am

I love this. I work with a person whose favourite words are “try” and “should” – his procrastination is an art form. Despite my quoting Yoda at him, he continues his trying shouldness ;) .

Ashley June 12, 2014 at 11:54 am

David, what about something like deserving better?

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