You Should Not Read This…

So – you ignored my patronising advice. Good for you 🙂

There are some words that, when I hear them, instantly raise red flags around the communication. One of these is the word “should”. Every time I hear someone say this I know they are talking about an idealised, romantic view of the world and commonly not about reality. Here are some examples…

As a tester, I hear the word “should” a lot. “The content from this field should populate the corresponding field on the admin page”. “The import should take no longer than 5 min”. “The user should be aware that they can’t add a link to this content”. Testers are professional sceptics. When we hear the word “should” we say “Reeeally? I’m going to have a look at that…” It’s surprising how often statements like these are wrong, completely or partially. One of the things that catch developers out is the belief that their “should” will apply in all circumstances. Yes, a name entered into the Name field is saved to the database… except when that name contains an apostrophe (common in Polynesian names), a hyphen or a space, or some strange German letter… And even if a user “should” know better, what happens is they accidentally add a link (in a cut and paste, for instance)? Does the app up and die? It probably shouldn’t do that.

As someone who studies ethics, however, one is aware of far less amusing failures of the word “should”. “People should protect the environment, if they are rational”. “There should be no discrimination in the workforce”. “People can believe what they want, but they should not act to harm other people or communities”. What people are really saying, when they say “should” is the opposite: people DON’T protect the environment, there IS discrimination, and people DO act according to their beliefs, even when it harms others. After making these pronouncements ethicists then allow themselves to feel disappointed at the way people actually behave. We need to accept the reality of what we are talking about. Ethics are too often about dreams and utopian ideals, and not about reality, and it’s far too easy for a privileged, educated Westerner to accept the constraints of their own ethical pronouncements and just assume that if they can and will, anyone can and will. Until ethicists make statements that are both possible and compelling to the general population, or at least law-makers, ethics fails to be a practical study and is instead just a means to designate various things that would be valued, if we were rational. We need to find the statements that make the following true:

  • People CAN AND WILL protect the environment when…
  • There WILL be no discrimination when…
  • People WILL NOT hurt each other when…

Anyway, who listens when other people tell you what you “should” do? You’re reading this, right? Unsolicited advice, or just basic patronising authorities (warranted or not) are generally ignored unless someone really has an interest in the topic and no clue what to do. In my experience, they only time pronouncing “should” has any effect is when people turn it on themselves: “I should go on a diet”. “I should not pay so much attention to negative people”. “This should not happen to me”. This has an effect because, rather than achieving these high aspirations, we fail to achieve them (or even properly start them) and then have an excuse to beat ourselves up. It’s a self-imposed goad with no plan to get the carrot. One of my couchsurfers put it very well when she related being told to “Stop shoulding all over yourself”. Once again, when we say should, we are being unrealistic, and talking about dreams instead of realising them. We need to accept that we are NOT going to go on a diet, unless something changes, and then we might. We only change when we actually do something, and keep at it, however that comes about, and then there is no more “should”.

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