there are people who live without a word for should. they’re called “Italians.” early in my junior year abroad, i noticed no one suffered from tremendous guilt over unmet obligations in the bel paese.
they did or did not clean the hall closet.
they invited the new neighbors for dinner. unless they decided not to.
they returned phone calls in a timely manner. except when they didn’t.
and the response when they fell short was basically, “oh, well. that’s why there’s tomorrow.”
where’s their moral imperative to be all things to all people at all times? i wondered. where’s their should?
so i grabbed my dictionary to look it up.
it wasn’t there. ha! of course the pleasure-seeking Italians would never stand for such nonsense. just another way they do it better. i thought.
the closest option was dovere, meaning to have to.
but let’s get real—there’s a huge gap between should and have to.
should is heavy and dragging, injecting guilt into an otherwise ho-hum situation. it deems us inadequate from the start, like we’re already behind, incompetent, and inferior. because the unspoken part of should is “but i really don’t want to.”
for example, “i should sell those books on Amazon.” translation: how the hell does that work? why don’t i know? i’m in way over my head.
it feels one step away from guilt. in fact, the etymology of should, from Old English and the past tense of shall, is guilt, debt, to owe, be under obligation. it has equivalents in German, Dutch, Norse, and Swedish i.e., lots of cold, wet, dark parts of Europe.
by contrast, to have to is almost…noble. “i have to sell those books on Amazon.” it sounds like you’re in control, aware of the task, and about to handle it.
there’s an official clarity and purpose, a duty that’s almost external. plus, a distinct lack of emotion. there is just the fact itself, beyond you and your baggage.
and that lets you treat unpleasantness with the distance and detachment it deserves. it’s like, “fine. i have to do this thing. whatever."
it’s ironic, that with all their Catholicism, the Italians aren’t beating themselves up over these quotidian failings. historically speaking, they're prime candidates. instead, they’ve pulled off an enviable linguistic distance.
so, what can we do, only speak Italian? no, although it’s an awesome language.
we can think about the implicit guilt trip we take when we use should. pay attention to how often you use it in the way i’ve discussed. and try replacing it with have to. does that shift the energy around the idea?
although eliminating the burdensome should might not make undesirable tasks disappear, might it may make them less onerous. and make us a tad more Italian, which is molto bene.
if you found this helpful, please:
share it on twitter or facebook using the "share" button below
or, subscribe by clicking the magenta banners at the top or bottom of the page to receive new posts via email.