“Need” and “Should”

Paleo Retiree writes:

Another installment in what I’m thinking of as my Andy Rooney Series, wherein I notice, and then muse grumpily about, current trends. Hey, what else are older people good for? Today: What to make of morally coercive language in the headlines and captions of newspapers, magazines and legit-seeming (whatever that means these days) online outlets?

Variations on “you need to” and “you should” are everywhere these days. A couple of examples:


I read these things and I hear whining, I hear manipulation, I feel someone trying to twist my arm and make me do something against my will. I read these things and I feel downright microaggressed-against, come to think of it.

Now, I agree that a “need” in a headline or caption can sometimes be excused. When The Week runs this …


… I’m not really  bugged. The Week’s mandate, after all, is to supply just enough information to get you through the day; if you’re on the way to the office, it’s conceivable that knowing a bit about what’s going on in the world really is a semi-necessity.

But on what basis can the “need”s in these HuffPost headlines be justified?



And in what universe can the following reasonably be said?


Out there in the media wilds, though, the “should”s seem to outnumber the “need”s.

should_deadspin01 should_gizmodo01

Evidently taking its cue from the HuffPost, Macworld is the current champ of Should Overuse:

should_macworld01 should_macworld11

The abuse of “should” can get really ridiculous. For example, while I may enjoy learning about cocktails …


… who really wants to be morally hectored into deepening his/her knowledge of booze?

But it’s Thought Catalog that wins my award for current least-favorite use of the word “should”:


Thank you but I think I’ll pass.

But maybe many people these days respond well to the “need” and “should” approach. What would I know about it? Given my own dislike of being told what I need to and/or should be doing, I find this hard to wrap my mind around, but I’m aware that I’m majorly out of step with today’s zeitgeist …

I have no way of knowing what this mania for “need” and “should” really reflects, of course, but my hunch is that it has to do with something I first noticed back in the ’90s: a lot of children telling each other what they “should” be doing, and a lot of them even telling their parents what they (the parents) “needed” to be doing too. Circa 2005 some of these kids started showing up at my place of work. I remember my surprise when they’d try to tell me what I — their supervisor — needed to be doing for them. Once I got over my amazement, I started informing them (in a calm but firm, indeed parental voice) that it wasn’t their role to tell me what I needed to be doing, it was my role to be telling them what they needed to do. (They responded by looking at me in utter shock.) Then, like many of the old-timers where I worked, I took the next buyout that came along. Partly we were just eager to go, but partly we were desperate to get away from this new crop of young people who seemed to have been so peculiarly socialized. We were OK with training them — training the young ‘uns was part of what we were paid to do, after all. But none of us wanted the job of having to re-parent them.

So maybe what we’re seeing now is nothing more than that generation of youngsters finally aging enough to be imposing their language and their approaches on legit publishing. Still, that prompts the question: How and why did a generation of American youngsters grow up trying to get what they wanted by telling each other and their elders what they really ought to be doing for them? Surely there must be some way to pin the blame for this phenomenon on the Boomers …

Curious as ever to hear everyone else’s tales, thoughts and theories.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Language, Personal reflections, Trends and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to “Need” and “Should”

  1. How would you rephrase those headlines to reduce or remove their imperative-ness?


    • The top two? Easiest thing in da world. First one: “If You Loved ‘Never Let Me Go,’ You Might Enjoy Chang-Rae Lee’s New Novel.” (Or “… We Bet You’ll Love … even more” or “…Run Out and Buy …”) Second one: “10 Female Movie Producers Who Are Shaking Up Hollywood” (or “…Who Are Rocking the Establishment …” or somesuch). In my many years in the magazine biz I don’t think I ever once wrote (or took part in writing — it’s often a group activity) a headline, subhead or caption using one of these “you need” or “you should” constructions. It’s really a bizarre and remarkable development.

      What’s your hunch about why we’re being assailed by so many of these “you need” and “you should” things?


      • The last few decades have seen a proliferation of the “For Dummies” and “Idiot’s Guide” books (some of which I have read, and enjoyed, and recommended to others). They’re easy and plain-speaking ways to get yourself a basic education in subjects you might not have studied in school (or might have studied, but slept through, or forgotten). You’ll not be graduate-level knowledgeable, but you’ll be conversant and not embarrass yourself. Possibly the “need” and “should” constructions are appealing to the same mindset: basic information, a cheat sheet of sorts, to get you up to the minimum level required to discuss the topic sort of-knowledgeably.


  2. bjk says:

    Remember when value relativism was going to take over the world? It might be hard to remember now, that was back in the 80s and 90s. Understandably, that didn’t last long. Maybe this kind of moral neediness is a reaction to the old moral vacuum, with no stop in the middle for moral ambiguity or whatever the mean between the two extremes should be called.


    • That seems like a shrewd hunch. If/when authority figures decline to exert their authority, the children will move in and take that role over. Something about pack leaders. Cesar Milan would understand, I suspect.


  3. Bill Budd says:

    You should really work harder at understanding millennials and you need to be more forgiving of the boomers.


  4. Cyrus says:

    Three thoughts (from a millenial):

    1) It establishes the author’s (moral) superiority: ‘You should do this…but I already have’.

    2) It feels hectoring because there’s no explanation given as to why you should read something. It would be less annoying if Thought Catalog said, “If you liked this, you should follow us on…”. You wouldn’t recommend a book/film/album to a friend without giving a reason.

    3) There’s a collection element – you must do x of y – that points to the emptiness at the heart of many millenials. With no meaningful sense of value/achievement they fall back on completing lists (like in a videogame) in order to have something to show off.


  5. commentard says:

    you should see boobehs. you need to touch boobehs. squeeze da boobehs!.
    um, i heel sufficiently coerced.


  6. agnostic says:

    There’s a tacit phrase at the end of all these “need” statements — “17 Thai curry pastes you need to try… if you want to be part of the in-crowd.” The in-crowd could be foodies, indie “rock” geeks, or whoever the headline is aimed at.

    It doesn’t sound like a moral imperative but more like a checklist of what you have to do in order to have your membership approved for the status-striving crowd of your choice.

    If you don’t keep up with all the must’s, need’s, and should’s, then you’re not really serious about striving for status. You’re just half-assing your attempt to one-up your competitors in the status contest. Step up your game, bring your A game, go big or go home, etc.

    And since status-striving in neverending, it’s not a fixed checklist like it is to be confirmed as a member of the Catholic church or of a bar association. That’s why there’s a new checklist every Monday of what the hardcore amateurs are expected to have under their belt by the end of the week.

    They’re posted in central arenas of the competition so that all of the competitors know what the rules are that week. It’s not like a single competitor is telling the others which vegan beard oils the others need to try — it’s some neutral third party (typically a website) with the respect of the competitors. Why are you trying out the tea tree beard oil this week? Not because some random beard aficionado told you to, but because The Art of Manliness included it in a must-try checklist a few days ago.

    This provides some structure to the competition, and gives the competitors a single shared goal to work toward, and that they know that the others know is a shared goal. Contests are pointless if the competitors can’t agree on where the goal-posts are this week. Clearly spelling out those targets is what the headline writers are doing.

    The audience is glad to hear all these need’s and should’s because it reassures them that there is an outside group of referees and judges who are providing that basic structure to the contest, that it’s not just every competitor trying to impose their need’s and should’s on every one of the others.

    “Saddle up, let’s see which one of us can adhere the closest to the HuffPo’s list du jour of must-buy doggie yoga mats! Go big or go home!”


  7. agnostic says:

    The presumptuous “need to” statements in the office are something different, but related to the same zeitgeist — the one of increasing competitiveness. It’s their petty way of elbowing out anyone who’s getting in the way of their neverending upward self-promotion.

    As your own story shows, we shouldn’t underestimate how effective it can be to elbow others out simply by acting as annoying as possible in a war of attrition — particularly where the climate doesn’t allow for violence or honor to guide relations, in which case you’d give those little brats a good slap across the face if they barked presumptuously enough.

    Why not be annoying in some other way? All the “I need you to…” statements also make it sound like the speaker is important and on-the-rise, while the listener is low or falling in status.

    You hear this the most where no kind of correction is possible at all, not even kind but firm reminders to remember their place. Hang out near the cashier, waitstaff, or whoever, and count how often you hear customers tell them they “need” a Frostie, or “need” a skinny latte, etc. Instead of “I’d like” or “How about..?” or something more personal and egalitarian. Women are the worst at this, as they are at manners in general (that’s why they need lengthy, explicit lessons in how to behave around strangers — etiquette books and the like).

    It’d be worth looking back into the Gilded Age / Victorian period and see if people were making the same complaints as today about everyone trying to presumptuously order others around. That was the most recent peak in status-striving and inequality. It started falling circa 1920 and hit a low in the easy-breezy ’60s and ’70s.

    That’s my hunch about the generational differences — did you grow up when striving for status was anathema, or has a rising level of competitiveness always been in the background?


  8. Fenster says:

    You emphasize the need/should but the boiling down of everything to a list of x items with x being between 1 and around 20 is at least as big a deal. The numbers reliance shows up a lot in your need/should discussion but it is a thing in itself, too. Here is a recent list of articles appearing on Real Clear Technology on recent day. I have scrubbed the list of the non-number articles but what is left over–maybe 20% of all the articles–is still pretty impressive.

    9 Great Ways You Can Improve Your Laptop’s Battery Life – PC Mag
    Six Cool iPhone, iPad Treasures Buried in iOS 7.1 – Adrian K-H, ZDNet
    18 Streaming TV Boxes Ranked from Worst to First – Ben Taylor, Time
    5 Great Android Apps That Do Amazing Things the iPhone Can’t – BGR
    11 Top Tools for Android Road Warriors – Anndrew Vacca, InfoWorld
    5 Things to Know About the Apple-Beats Deal – Michael Liedtke, AP
    10 Things You Need to Know About LG’s New G3 – Adriana Lee, ReadWrite
    19 Cool Features Hidden Inside Chrome – Evan Dashevsky, PC Magazine
    3 Wearables That Are, Gasp!, Must-Haves – Dennis Williams, Huff Post
    5 Reasons the Surface Pro 3 Shouldn’t Replace Your Laptop – Laptop
    6 Things Apple Needs to Fix in iOS 8, ASAP – Adriana Lee, ReadWrite
    9 Companies Know More about You Than Google or Facebook – Quartz
    10 Indispensable iPhone Apps for Windows Users – Tony Bradley, PCW
    10 Things MIT Computer Scientists Have Given the World – ITworld
    The 11 Most Beautiful Apple Stores In The World
    4 Things Microsoft Can Do to Take Windows to the Next Level – TNW
    The Three Laws of Pentagon Robotics – David Swanson, Ethical Technology
    9 Tech Injuries and How to Avoid Them – Gary Marshall, Tech Radar


  9. Gareth says:

    Insidious. Coercive. A lot of this stuff comes from those “from around the web” sections that get tacked onto websites both good and bad strangely, which I click through sometimes admittedly ‘cuz stoopid fluff is often more entertaining than torpid reality (if that’s to be found online I’m not sure). There is a level of perniciousness involved also with the word “hate.” Such as “college professor’s hate him” with no explanation given, just a photo of some guy that’s “hated.” And you’ll see the same dumb links going on for years…we’ve been hearing about Deborah Norville’s devastation of some health malady she’s been managing just fine for over a decade but must still drive the clicks. Who generates this crap?


  10. Toddy Cat says:

    I’ve also noticed the fact that millenials seem to be A LOT more comfortable with appeals to authority than previous generations, even if the authority is only the authority of the crowd. I suppose that makes sense, since that’s all that a lot of them have ever known. It’s creating this odd kind of hipster cultural fascism, and it’s creepy beyond all words. I wonder what David Riesman thwould think of all this?


  11. Pingback: The Best of UR 2014 | Uncouth Reflections

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