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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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

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Tanja April 25, 2011 at 12:23 am

In my opinion, this is one of your best posts. This is what “self-help” means to me (or what I think it should be): taking an honest and critical look of yourself, your actions and the language you use. And then taking action to improve your ways. Or at least trying :D You can probably see what my problem/ excuse is…

richie April 25, 2011 at 1:22 am

One I hope I am no longer guilty of, but will be recognised, is the format
“I’m not/no ________, but ________________________”

Some fun examples might begin as
“I’m no expert, but (I’m about to speak as if I am?)
“I’m not anti govt, but ______”
and there’s always the timeless classic
“I’m not racist, but [insert overtly racist remark]”

When you hear this format, be prepared as it may be time to close your ears, you might experience a sweeping generalisation, be told something (although seemingly authentic) horrifically inaccurate/ignorant, or just be simply offended

Not always true, but often nonetheless….

I mean, I’m no statistician with accurate and repeated datasets, but I’d say 90% of the time you hear this format, it will be followed with b*llsh*t

David April 25, 2011 at 6:15 pm

For sure. There are all kinds of qualifiers we throw in at the beginning of sentences like that to slink away from the responsibility for making a bolder statement. I suppose it’s better though, if we do give others that kind of rhetorical heads-up, when we’re about to say something that we wouldn’t be comfortable saying ‘naked.’

Liane April 25, 2011 at 5:57 am

I Love this post. “Should” has always bugged me but I had not considered the impact of the other words you mentioned. You are so right on with them.

Thank you for this reminder!

Jeremy Ramsay April 25, 2011 at 7:47 am

You should not say should! How about that for a paradox? Great post David.

David April 25, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Yeah. Should is a tricky word…

If you look at the dictionary, the ways we typically use it are:

1. Used to express obligation or duty: You should send her a note.
2. Used to express probability or expectation: They should arrive at noon.

These are both conditional on the individual. It depends on what they personally expect, what they regard to be obligatory, what they regard to be probable. Yet we communicate “shoulds” to each other as if they apply to both of us equally. As a kid, when my parents said I should clean my room, I didn’t didn’t really feel like I should.

“Should” is empty by itself, yet we often use it as if it is its own reason. It normally only expresses that which would give us a sense of rightness or appropriateness if it were true, and that’s bound to be different for everyone.

Lisis April 25, 2011 at 7:53 am

In defense of the dreamers, idealists, and social revolutionaries who live and die for these words you find suspicious, consider that all significant change begins with a desire for something different:

“I wish women could vote. A woman’s voice should count as much as a man’s… they deserve to be heard. It may be impossible to win them the right to vote, but we should try.”

Perhaps it isn’t the words themselves that are a problem but, rather the intent. If our intent is to judge, punish, or condemn, I can see where one ought to be suspicious. But if our aim is justice, fairness, and compassion, then these words may be the seedlings that will blossom into heroic acts, like Gandhi’s non-violent revolution.

You may argue that even heroic acts are pointless in the grand scheme of things, but that’s a whole different issue. Words are neither good nor bad. They are symbols for the soul that utters them.

Lisis April 25, 2011 at 7:55 am

PS: I know you had a tiny disclaimer about this at the beginning of the post, I just felt a need to end on a positive note. Group hug? ;)

jacquie April 25, 2011 at 9:15 am

I agree with you lisis. Its all about how you use them.

Shanna Mann April 25, 2011 at 10:06 am

Very nice rebuttal. However, I do so rarely hear those words used in the context you describe. David’s version, on the other hand…

Lisis April 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

Maybe people haven’t learned how to use these four words (and others like them) in a positive and empowering context. Perhaps David’s next post *should* be, “Four Words That Inspire and Empower Me” (in which he describes the same four words!) It’s like an exercise in a high school debate team. ;)

If we focus on the negative aspect of anything, that’s exactly what we’ll see. If we exemplify the positive side, perhaps others will see it too?

David April 25, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Whooooaa there, my favorite Devil’s advocate…

I know you partly rescinded your objection in the following comment, but I’m still going to take this chance to make an example out of you if you don’t mind because this is something that happens a lot:

Many times I post about some part of human behavior that it makes sense to be more aware of, or to look closer at, and many readers interpret it as if I’m saying it’s something to avoid or to regard as ‘bad.’

Yes, all actions begin with thoughts and desires, and it’s when they become actions that they start to become useful. I’m only saying (for whatever it’s worth) that I have noticed those particular words are, in my experience, often rooted in presumptuous and reductive thinking that isn’t so useful for actually helping anyone.

I know you and I don’t quite see eye to eye on the notion of idealism, but I hope you don’t think that means I believe, say, that Gandhi’s efforts were pointless. I just believe there is much to be gained from acknowledging the reality of the social and biological contexts we live in, when we’re deciding what to do next. But that has nothing to do with this post and I dare say you’ve read a bit too much into it ;)

Lisis April 25, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Haha! I don’t mind… I love being made an example of. You know me, I don’t just read between the lines, I read through them, behind them, and all around them. (I have too much time on my hands.)

Plus, I love to be a bother baby… just to make sure this doesn’t get TOO easy for you. ;)

David April 25, 2011 at 5:10 pm

I always appreciate your making things difficult

Jim June 3, 2011 at 4:39 am

Beautifully, clearly and wisely stated – thanks :-)

sara April 25, 2011 at 10:37 am

Lol I am often guilty of often saying I’ll try. After reading this post I’ll definitely try to be more cautious about it.

sara April 25, 2011 at 10:47 am

Wow maybe its because I’m so tired but I didn’t even realize what I wrote till I hit submit! Big fail on my part!

michelle April 26, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Ha! I thought you were being ironic! :-)

harpergrey April 25, 2011 at 11:38 am

“Should” has always been a word that has gotten my hackles up. I’ve often heard it used in terms of expectations, and that always raises conversational red flags for me. “Wish” and “deserve” are two that I didn’t realize made me uncomfortable until you said it, but you’re absolutely right that they’re warning words.

But whether I dislike “try” depends largely on the person saying it. Some people say “try” in the sense that they will do their best but don’t want to promise something they’re not certain they can deliver. Others say it in just the way you’ve described: as an excuse to keep from having to get something done unless it’s easier than expected. If I don’t know the person, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt unless proven otherwise.

Another excellent post, David!

Yankee Doodle April 25, 2011 at 12:10 pm

I too do not like the word “deserve” especially when it’s used to refer to people “deserving” to die for their supposed stupid actions. Lots of smart people die prematurely and lots of not so smart people live to 100, do they deserve their fates? If someone is unfortunate to be born with a bellow average intelligence, they deserve to die early? Perhaps we should have eugenics. But then, the average intelligence will just be reformed. Perhaps we can just kill the bottom half of the bottom half of the bottom half until all humans are dead?

Yankee Doodle April 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm

reformed = renormed

David April 25, 2011 at 6:55 pm

It’s scary to think about, but eugenics is what you get when you follow this “they deserved it” logic to its end.

Yankee Doodle April 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm

The four words mentioned are used to refer to unlikely hypotheticals that lead to internal distress when dwelled upon. To focus on such inactionable events leads to a feeling of despair because the world doesn’t fulfill your fastidious and/or selfish desires. To desire that which is highly unlikely is a great source of self-inflicted needless suffering. Better to focus on actionable things and just do it rather than chattering about it incessantly.

Courtney Cantrell April 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm

One of my red-flag catch-phrases is “You might… .” I grew up hearing my mother use it: You might call the neighbor to remind them about the trash. You might empty the dishwasher. You might pick up the livingroom.

This was her way of saying: I want you to call the neighbor, empty the dishwasher, pick up the livingroom.

And guess what? I catch myself using that phrase, and it drives me crazy! I won’t analyze my mother’s motives…but when I use the “you might” phrase, I’m using it because I don’t want to take responsibility for my own desires. I’d appreciate it if my husband took out the trash; but I don’t want to sound like a nag, so I tell him “he might.”

Well, sure he might. But he also might not. And I can’t expect the poor man to read my mind to find out what it is I’m really saying to him!

Good reminder, David — thank you. I also agree with you on the possible evils of try, wish, should, and deserve.

David April 25, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Isn’t it funny how we qualify stuff that we’re afraid of actually saying it? Another common one this reminds me of is “I was wondering if you could…” It’s such a pretentious thing to say and I still catch myself doing it. Rather than just ask someone for something, I go to them and declare aloud what I was wondering about, which happens to be whether they are interested in helping me. “You know, I was really wondering about that. Just thought I should tell you.”

Kate Schnyder May 2, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Here’s another phrase “I don’t want to interrupt you but. . .”

Courtney Cantrell May 6, 2011 at 11:28 am

“…but I’m going to anyway.” Good one, Kate!

Courtney Cantrell May 6, 2011 at 11:31 am

Bahahahaha! Yes, I’ve used that one, too. Ack! I’d quit using it if someone replied, “Well, it’s interesting to know that you’ve been wondering if I could help.” And then just left it at that!

Courtney Cantrell April 25, 2011 at 12:52 pm

P.S. David, I checked out your “About” page, and I’m glad I did. Not only because I discovered that you’re doing something amazing here, but also because until I read your Einstein quote, I thought the “rapt” part of your “Raptitide” had something to do with velociraptors. Although it should’ve occurred to me that *that* would be “raptortude.”

Pardon my random. ; )

David April 25, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Haha! Made me laugh out loud, thank you. I’m flattered that you stuck around even though there isn’t much dinosaur-related content here.

The “Raptor” part of velociraptor actually means “thief.” So in your case Raptitude would refer to someone’s aptitude at robbery.

Courtney Cantrell May 6, 2011 at 11:27 am

Hey, robbers need their skillz, too. ;-D

Amy November 5, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Hah! Been reading David’s blog for a while, and I didn’t realize the meaning behind the name either! I guess that makes a lot more sense ^.^

Hanlie April 25, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Great post! Similar to “should” is “need to”. So often someone will say, usually with a sigh, “I really need to lose weight, start saving, call my grandmother.” Generally they have no intention of following through. I started working with an NLP coach a few months ago and words have become very important to me. It’s amazing what a difference we can make in our lives by changing our language.

Two other words I’m not particularly fond of are “always” and “never”, especially when they follow the word “you”.

David April 25, 2011 at 6:45 pm

I was going to have this post include “Need,” but it was getting too long and that word might, uh, need some extra attention.

It is one of those words that I’ve become a lot more conscious of, and I find for me, “I need” usually means “I want and am not emotionally prepared to not get”. We learn this early on. Even three-year olds will say “but I need it” when it becomes clear they aren’t going to get something just because they say they want it. I probably told my mom I needed Lucky Charms when I was younger.

brec May 2, 2011 at 3:42 pm

In fact “should” and “ought” and “must” have virtually disappeared, having been replaced by “need to.”

The auxiliary verbs listed above are normative: their use expresses an opinion of the speaker as to the proper or correct or right action of a an agent, informed by moral or ethical premises. They imply volition and personal responsibility.

“Need to,” however, is a statement of fact. One’s needs—not to mention the “needs” of inanimate objects—are not subject to will or decision. They are an inbuilt feature of structure, wholly derived from construction or development.

Chimera April 25, 2011 at 2:09 pm

This is really what it’s all about. Once again, I’m amazed by your ability to get your soul in the open and don’t luster yourself to the readers.

It’s actually two words, but still, I could add “next time” to this list. Strangely enough, every time I use those two words together I’m letting myself free from the responsibility of the moment, knowing that next time I’ll do better. And wouldn’t you know it, 1,5 seconds later I imagine things as if there won’t be a next time, or I remember all the previous “next time”‘s that didn’t do a thing.

David April 25, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Heh… you’re right. “Next time” really only means “Not this time.”

margie May 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Along the same lines: I can’t believe how many times I say “for now.” “I will put this here ‘for now'” implies there will be a “next time” when I will “get around” to putting it where it belongs or finding a place for it!

nrhatch April 25, 2011 at 2:10 pm

My pet peeve ~ when people attempt to turn a “truth” they’ve observed about themselves into a truism for EVERYONE . . . in order to justify, rationalize, or elevate their own desires, behaviors, or idiosynchrocies:

Everone I know . . .
We’re all guilty of . . .
Everybody cheats on their taxes . . .

That’s one thing I enjoy about your writing. You don’t automatically assume that YOUR view of the world is the only view of the world.

Axeell April 25, 2011 at 4:04 pm

My ear is always cat by the argument beginning with “I am not racist but____”
Why do some people do that so they can be out circled from the other “real racists” People think if they start with that they are not mean they are just saying stuff. Or if they say “I think African people don’t belong here”, and than when they are judged in that they go “I am not racist”

What also annoys me when hear people, and my self, say “I SHOULD be sunny tomorrow or today OR We DESERVE sunshine after all these rainy days. Why? Why is rain such a problem (if you are of course living in an area that has no flooding problems) But if not rain never, as far as I know, never killed anyone. So why make a bloody problem about it, it is nature/weather.

David April 25, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Racism is a really interesting one. In North America, racism is regarded as the absolute worst of the prejudices, probably because of our painful history of race-based slavery. But the reality is that it is completely human and completely normal to categorize, to group in our minds, and race is one of many factors by which we all do that, even if we would never say so.

I think one of the reasons people say “I’m not racist but ____” is because we figure to be racist is to necessarily believe in the fundamental superiority of one race over another. But it really just means to discriminate based on race, and I think we all do that a bit whether we realize it (or vocalize it) or not. We are not conscious of most of our preconceptions, and we all have thousands of them. So people use that phrasing because they want to express a thought that does discriminate based on race, yet they don’t want anyone to think that they support slavery, eugenics, or any sort of ideological racism.

Gustavo April 25, 2011 at 4:33 pm

I don’t like it when I catch myself using the “love” word to describe my preferences.

I love to run in the mornings
I love dolphins
I love cappuccino…

Is like trying to brand my personality to others or myself through indirect samples of taste or something.

EcoCatLady April 25, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Very thought provoking post. I tend to agree with what Lisis wrote above… it’s not the words, it’s the negative intent. The “deserve” portion was particularly striking to me. I never thought of that word being primarily used in such a negative manner. How ’bout “he really deserves the recognition that he has received.”

I do agree with you about the wishy-washy escape from responsibility thing. But to me there’s another side to that equation that’s more interesting. Why do we feel the need to portray ourselves as having an intent that we don’t actually have? Why can’t we own our feelings, and be OK with where we are? Seems to me that part of taking responsibility is being able to acknowledge unapologetically when we have decided not to take action, rather than always holding ourselves up against some imagined yet often impossible ideal. I know that’s something I’m working on at the moment – full acceptance of being exactly where I am.

The “wish” segment also struck a chord for me, not so much in terms of taking responsibility or not, but in terms of wanting to control uncontrollable situations. For example, I’ve got a newly adopted cat who may or may not have Feline Leukemia (which is a fatal disease). She’s been exposed, but has tested negative… but there’s an incubation period so I’ve currently got her quaranteened from my other cats until we can be sure she doesn’t have it. I’ve been wrestling with the hope/pray/wish thing a great deal lately in terms of that situation. But the truth is that if she’s got it, she’s got it, and no amount of hoping, praying or wishing will make that situation any different. I guess it’s just a way of imagining that somehow I can make it better just by wanting it to be so.

I guess I’m seeing a theme here in what I’ve just written – acceptance: acceptance of ourselves and acceptance of situations that are beyond our control.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

David April 25, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Why do we feel the need to portray ourselves as having an intent that we don’t actually have? Why can’t we own our feelings, and be OK with where we are? Seems to me that part of taking responsibility is being able to acknowledge unapologetically when we have decided not to take action, rather than always holding ourselves up against some imagined yet often impossible ideal. I know that’s something I’m working on at the moment – full acceptance of being exactly where I am.

These are great questions and they are really the crux of the human condition. At the end of the day, we can’t quite bear ourselves.

I think you really nailed it with your thoughts about “wish.” Wishing is a mental striving for control. I am convinced now that when I slip into wishing it is so that I can get a little, momentary hit of what it might be like if it was all under my control.

I guess I’m seeing a theme here in what I’ve just written – acceptance: acceptance of ourselves and acceptance of situations that are beyond our control.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

This is really what this post is about. These are words I often use to focus on what I can’t control, and to forgo the chance to act on what I can. I don’t think I am an anomaly here :)

Maureen April 25, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Loved the piece. However, (now there’s a word that ould raise ome red flags!) I often use the word “deserve” in exactly the opposite context. For example: ” I worked very hard today and I deserve a hot bath” or “You have 5 small children and you rarely get out. You deserve a break.”
That’s all, thanks for a great post.

David April 25, 2011 at 6:21 pm

It’s interesting you say that, because another reader said in an email that she does that too (I worked so hard, I deserve to veg out in front of the TV tonight) but it isn’t necessarily a positive thing. She said “It’s just my way of justifying a decision that I’m not really comfortable with.”

It could definitely go both ways. All I’m suggesting is that we look a little closer at what our minds are really up to when we use these words (and certain others.)

EcoCatLady April 25, 2011 at 6:57 pm

I echo David’s sentiments here, but with a twist. My question is why we have the need to justify taking care of ourselves, like it is somehow “bad” or “indulgent” to want to relax in a hot bath or allow ourselves some time away from parental responsibilities. I’m not immune from this, mind you, I just have found that it’s not a terribly helpful approach in the long run.

Henway April 25, 2011 at 7:13 pm

I find myself using the word “should” a lot in my mind.. such as should find love, should have better luck, etc. It really is a negative word that doesn’t do you any good… from now on, whenever I use the word “should”, I’ll just slap myself and say SHADDUP! ^_^

Zack April 25, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Rationalizing, as you have mentioned in previous posts, is a sneaky trick our subconscious plays on us. We have some task at hand, but we put it off because of x,y, and z. I know I shouldn’t have reacted with anger, but it made sense because he did this and that. Because. For me, “becuase” usually means I’m coming up with stupid excuses that my subconscious may accept, but my conscious self would reject instantanously. It’s dangerous, playing the rational game, and “because” is the red light warning me to go no further.

Debi April 25, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Thanks. Glad I stopped by.

Jonathan April 26, 2011 at 6:57 am

I find that if I say “Someone needs to do X”, then it means “It needs doing, but I don’t want to do it”. I have a rule that if I say it, then I have to be that someone or accept that it won’t get done.

Christo April 26, 2011 at 8:49 am

I think HATE is a terrible word and too few of us realize the impact it has when we say it. “I hate it when that happens!” or “I hate that guy/them/that song/that religion” etc. Hate is a strong word no matter how you attempt to use it. It’s ugly and people use it much too often without realizing how it actually sounds/comes across. You may think that what you’re saying is small and unable to affect a person, but you are most likely wrong about that.

I witness my own mother say this word quite often and no matter what the point that she’s trying to make is, it always sounds angry and bitter. There’s just no need for it. If you can HATE somebody for being different, or HATE something because you disagree with it and/or you don’t share the same opinion of it then YOU may have some deeper seeded problems that you should try to work on.

Even when you try to use the word with “good intentions” by saying something along the lines of “I really hate racists” or any other point that you try to get across about something that is largely negative, it still comes out extremely UGLY and distasteful.

HATE: to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward; detest: to hate the enemy; to hate bigotry.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”

Albert Einstein

Katie April 26, 2011 at 10:17 am

As usual, great food for thought.

I think one reason people use these words often is because if they actually make an effort they might fail.

An interesting follow-up essay would be a discussion of failure, and how we beat ourselves up over it and identify with the failure rather than the noble attempt.

Felix van Driem April 26, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Another thoughtfully and well written article. Although I was personally a little befuddled when I saw ‘deserve’ in your list. Especially after all the other ones rang so true. But I discovered after reading further that its because I never use ‘deserve’ in the negative, only in the positive. But actually it just means that “I like/admire the person who ‘deserved’ the good luck that they’ve gotten”

Tobi April 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I’m always careful about how often I use the words me, myself, and I. When I’m talking to myself or someone else, I pay attention to how much I’m using them, so that I can see if I’m really being rational and fair, or if I’m just trying to rationalize the way I think and feel, instead of doing something…? Oh I wish I had your gift of clarity of speech! I know you’re not suppose to say that word, but I have no idea what to do I’ve tried asking around and haven’t gotten any answers. So for now I’ll just wish I was as clear as you are! lolz.

Yankee Doodle April 27, 2011 at 4:14 am

Not a word, but a phrase that makes me suspicious is “Everything causes cancer.” Which implies it’s okay to expose one’s self needlessly and recklessly to known or suspected carcinogens since it appears nearly everything causes cancer.

Yankee Doodle April 27, 2011 at 6:08 am

One final post, I promise. A couple years ago in the SF Bay Area, a transit cop “accidentally” shot and murdered a young man execution style while the young man was cuffed with his face facing the ground. The cop’s defense was he thought he was holding a taser instead of a gun. Anyhow, many people on various internet forums actually side with the cop for making the mistake saying the young man deserved to die for his criminal activities. Some are less heartless (but still heartless) and say it’s unfortunate, “but if only the young man didn’t commit a crime…” implying as long as you obey the law, you won’t have to worry about getting murdered by a cop. If you break the law, be prepared to get shot at accidentally by cops. I suppose the words “if only” raises flags for me. Yes things could have been different, but they weren’t/aren’t. Hindsight is often 20/20. It’s also easy to judge a situation from afar and think about how a person could have made better choices in the past. But we are all different and react differently to different situations.

Mark April 27, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Brilliant, David, your posts (And Site) really have improved with time. I don’t know if anyone could have picked better words, or a better expression of the feeling experienced when using them, to fit in this category. However, I’ll try to add some: “Can’t,” “Never,” “Impossible,” “Unrealistic,” and as a question – “What?” would all be at least an honorable mention for me.

Barbara April 27, 2011 at 8:52 pm

Well……I “stumbled upon” this site today and it has truly been an exercise in growing up…even though I am 46. I started with the “purging stuff” post and sort of wandered around from there. While healthy to explore the depths of neuroses of others, it can be a little disconcerting when you find yourself described so coherently and completely within the fine print. Thanks……I think. ;)
At least, I know that I am not alone.

Xamuel April 27, 2011 at 10:44 pm

The problems with “deserve” go for positive deserving as well as negative deserving. “A hard worker deserves good food”: sounds uncontroversial, but does this imply a less-hard worker deserves to starve?

Do wealthy heirs deserve their inheritances?

Since deserving seems to be pretty arbitrary, it’s best to just assume you deserve all the best things in life and none of the worst, and act accordingly.

nickyO April 28, 2011 at 5:31 am

When I use the word “should” it generally starts in my own badgering of myself for missing an opportunity or simply screwing up a situation.

It’s been both useful and harmful. It’s become useful because recently I quit dwelling on missed opportunities and instead began to try to recreate the opportunity. This works best when you “should have” said something, but at the time of the conversation didn’t think of it fast enough or the idea simply wasn’t clear to you then. It’s awkward at times and the momentum and power of the instance may not be as strong but simply saying “do you remember when you said….” and then following through with what you “wish” you had said can be rewarding. The same holds true for a “should have” done this moment. Not always but sometimes you can still do what you should have done.

“should haves” can be harmful when there is no way to make something right, then you’re just tormenting yourself (never good) and it’s best to let it go and chalk it up as an act of humbly accepting that you’re human. I have a friend who say “I’m not Jesus, you know.” and it always cracks me up because when you are “trying” so hard to be your own definition of perfect—a reality check is often necessary.

Love these types of conversations, good post David.

A May 1, 2011 at 8:00 pm

I sometimes feel an internal cringe when I say “can’t”. If I’m saying it about myself, it feels like I am deciding my own failure. More often than not, I should be saying “do not want”. In regards to saying it to others, I feel like a parent scolding a child. At my job, I have many instances where I could passionately tell customers that they can’t or should not do something. Even if the outcome of this non-behavior is a reward (ex. “You can’t keep using your debit card without knowing how much money you have available if you want to keep yourself from over-drafting your account”) it is technically not my job to tell anyone how to act or what to do. I get a fair amount of poor treatment from the general public at my job, and I even feel uncomfortable with the phrase, “Sir, you can’t speak to me like that,” because the counter-argument is usually something like, “I’ll speak to you however I want!”

Duncan May 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm

“should” is a euphemism for “don’t want to”.

“I should go to the gym” -> “I don’t want to go to the gym”

swid May 3, 2011 at 7:46 am

Nah, “hate” is just used in the wrong context most of the time anyway. Blame this thing on the whole haters gon’ hate backward ghetto logic.

Yolanda May 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

Thank you for writing the essay that has failed to materialize from my own thoughts. I’d like to present a phrase, a facet of should that I consider especially pernicious: “Shouldn’t have to.” This is a way of dodging responsibility, blaming others, and not stepping up to the moment to make a better moment. “I shouldn’t have to wait for this light.” “I shouldn’t have to be courteous to these people.” “I shouldn’t have to pay these taxes.” Again, it’s envisioning a perfect world where the only happy person is the self as every other thing that exists only exists to serve one’s self. Seems a harmless fantasy, perhaps, but it makes us less able to accept reality and much less gracious about it.

Rod May 3, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Another dangerous word is “fair,” which usually means, “more for me.”

The-Dame.com May 4, 2011 at 9:32 am

Thank you for detailing the meaning and our use behind these words, it really helps to shed a light on destructive languages we use. I wish I could have written something like this on my site!

margie May 4, 2011 at 2:01 pm

I “just” discovered that “just” is all over my communication. When I omit “just,” I experience a connection with the present moment with increased clarity. Try it! This caused me to look at other modifiers I use frequently; I found “seems” also showed up a lot. It became apparent that I use many modifiers with the result of buffering me from what I am experiencing.

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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