Saturday, July 14, 2012

Rhetoric of Irresponsibility

I recently participated in a heated discussion on Facebook.  Luckily, the conversation is so far down my timeline that it would probably take four hours of scrolling to find it, thus the identities of those involved have been protected by piles of social-networking compost.  Rather than provide the details of the actual discussion, I've decided to use a substitute topic: 

The whole firestorm started when a teacher posted a rant on her Facebook page that the coffee machine in her office constantly breaks down.  "This is outrageous!" she vented, "I can't teach properly without my caffeine!"   Meanwhile the post collected "likes" and comments faster than ants on a watermelon. Several of those posting comments worked together in the same office.   The majority of the replies were clusters of Yeah!, Word up!, and Agree! Other comments read: "We should complain to the administration about this!" "We should demand better working conditions!" "We should refuse to come to work unless the machine is fixed!"

Being the victim of office-coffee-maker breakdown myself, I sympathized with my colleagues. I posted a few suggestions to solve the problem that have worked for my institution in the past.  More "likes" popped up along with dozens of, "Yeah! We should do that!" 

A few weeks later, I sent an email to the teacher who posted the original rant, asking if the coffee maker got replaced. She reported that the lifeless appliance was still in her teachers' office and nothing had been done to fix or replace it. She threw in how unfair it was to work without coffee.

Strange, I thought.  So many colleagues seemed to have banded together online to help.  There were some good suggestions and it appeared as if the problem would be solved in no time flat.

Upon analyzing the comments from the conversation, I came to a cloudy-day realization: all the suggestions started with "We should..."   None of them started with "I could..."  or "I will..."

"We should..." are perhaps the two words in the English language that will guarantee the project won't get off the ground.   This is what Maria Araxi Sachpazian beautifully calls "Rhetoric of Irresponsibility". 

I work with some wonderful people who come up with some wonderful ideas. However, I hear "we should" almost on a daily basis. I've thus developed a reflex that fires off the following reply: "That's a great idea! Why don't you come up with a game plan to implement it? Let me know if you need help." 

I encourage you all to try this.  And be aware of when you (over)use "We should..." Consider changing it to "I could..." and see where it leads.


  1. Yep. How about "I'd like to..." or "we could.." or "why don't we..".

    I used to be in an office of moaners at one point who said "we should get paid more", "we should go on strike" and "we should have less classes". Did anyone say anything to the DOS? Nope. That's usually me as I have no problem with calling sthg crap, well, crap. I did this recently and the person said thanks for being so honest. I could have been blunter but why bother.

    I also find the "we" element annoying. It generally equals 'it will never happen so it's just hot air but I sound good maybe'.

    What I don't miss about working on a FT contract in France is all the meetings. They were full of 'coulds' and 'shoulds' and 'maybes'. Hours of the stuff. It used to drive me barmy. I mean, 3,4,5 meetings with no decision. Yet the response to me "I can do..." was usually "we need a meeting about it" then another and another and...Wahey, it's Friday but we can still swap emails all weekend.

  2. Some great points here, that extend beyond the ELT microcosm. I also think that it's something we need to be careful about doing it to ourselves, as in "I should invest more in my professional development" or "I should go a bit out of my comfort zone more often." We may think about doing these things, but how often to we hold ourselves responsible for actually doing what we we know we "should do"? Something to keep in mind...