Should/Must Language Patterns in Pandemic Times

A man with red hood and mask indicating social distancing

I often find that some interpret NLP language patterns rigidly as per a pre-existing framework. I believe it is useful to sustain curiosity with language patterns.

For example, I was told several times that “try” was an inappropriate word—either you do it or not. There is no “trying.”

Of late, I have begun to ponder on this word. If indeed it was a “done” or “not done” statement, the mind could have chosen to say so. What makes an individual use this word?

In my experience of this word, I note the following:

  1. I either physically started an action or mentally initiated it. There is a definite movement to an outcome.
  2. And then I either encountered an environmental challenge or predicted a challenge in my mind.

For example, when I say—”I tried different keys to open the lock” – I mean, I have a set of keys, I used them to open it and none of them succeeded in the task.

When a client says, “I tried to do X”, instead of snubbing him/her, I suggest exploring—what is the challenge this person experienced or has predicted? And then work on opening out that challenge frame.

Similarly, I have noticed a reductionist approach to should/must pattern or what is called as Modal Operator of Necessity.

Sometimes, in my experience, should/must  has been categorized as “rules in the head” which has to be disrupted. In other cases, should/must is deemed as an inappropriate usage while communicating to self or other.

I believe the binary approach of right/wrong restricts exploring a language pattern—that each pattern emerges from a certain ecosystem and it is part of that internal web. And I respect it as beneficial in some context for the person using it.

In this article, I have chosen to interrogate this pattern further in context of Pandemic messaging and compliance.

Sensing Should/Must

In my “Sensing language patterns” webinar—I get delegates to experience the should/must pattern somatically. They have reported the following:

  1. I feel pressure.
  2. It is heavy on my head.
  3. It feels like something has been added—like a burden.
  4. It feels there is someone out there telling me and I won’t do it.
  5. I don’t like it.

I personally sense the should/must as a presence located my front-right, within my arm’s distance. And my breathing becomes shallow.

What is common in all the above reports is that there is an external aspect involved. In the sense, the term “pressure” indicates something that is causing the pressure, “heavy” is something added to increase weight, “burden” indicates something given/added, an external entity/matter incongruous to the individual’s ecosystem.

In other words, there is an awareness of an external—beyond self.

Frequent Usage of Pattern and Dr Lucas Derks’ Authority Work

I wondered about the folks who use this pattern frequently in their communication. And then those who respond to this pattern and comply.

Lucas Derks (2005) in his work on Location of Authority figures (as part of his Social Panorama Model) observed that the ability to be impacted by the presence of the authority figure is dependent on the individual’s capacity to take second perceptual position with the authority figure.

He said—the individual’s self-image is often weaker than the authority figure personification in Mental Space in terms of spatial locations as well as sub-modalities. Next, due to the dominance of authority figure location and submodalities, the person steps into second position with the authority figure. S/he then assesses the self from the perspective of the authority figure and returns to the first perceptual position with this information. This leads to enactment of specific behaviours.

This is how an authority figure succeeds in influencing an individual.

In my client sessions with authority issues, this observation has been validated several times.

Interestingly, Dr Lucas found that the neurological ability to take second position also corresponded with high level of empathy in general. He found that a person who has high level of empathy (taking second position) is also cursed with the ability to experience authority figures quickly.

And that folks in Autism spectrum, who are unable to take second position, are also unable to experience authority influence.

This, in my view, is a fabulous discovery.

I applied this discovery to language pattern use.

Those who use should/must language patterns frequently are invoking authority frame, a frame outside of themselves. And why do they do that?

Because their model of self is not consequential/significant enough. This is compensated by invoking an authority frame. In plain-speak, this pattern emerges from a state of low self-worth.

What about folks who comply with should/must instructions? Following Derks (2005)’s work, these are folks who can do second position easily and hence also capable of empathy.

Application of this Pattern in Pandemic Times

In Pandemic Times, we have received several instructions—like we should socially distance, we should wear cloth masks when in public spaces, sneeze into your sleeves, hand-wash regularly.

And on certain days as per Indian Prime Minister Modi’s urging, we were also asked to stand in our balconies and ring a bell, beat utensils or light a lamp.

Some of these instructions are vital for community health. It got me thinking. Who complies? Who doesn’t? Why?

There was an interesting phenomenon when the Indian PM asked Indian citizens to light a lamp at a particular time and stand outside the door or balcony. He said,

And that is why, this Sunday, on the 5th of April, we must all together, challenge the darkness spread by the corona crisis, introducing it to the power of light. On this 5th of April, we must awaken the superpower of 130 crore Indians. We must take the super resolve of 130 crore Indians to even greater heights.

In response to his speech, some folks lit a single lamp and stood outside. Some folks lit a lamp inside and stood outside for few moments. Some folks refused to light a lamp.

And then there were many who lit several lamps on the balcony giving the aura of a Diwali celebration. And yet others, who took it further and burst crackers.

Who complied?

From the previous section, it is clear that folks with capacity to empathize complied exactly as per the directions. In fact, the higher the empathy, the closer they read/heard the speech and caught the essence of the message. This was evidenced by social media messaging which went somewhat like this: “Think of thousands affected by the Cornovirus,” “Millions of migrant workers and daily wage earners with no money due to this lockdown.” This was followed by whether they had lit a lamp or not lit one.

What about those who chose to not light a lamp?

I find rebels are extremely aware of the framework that they wish to rebel against. Hence although their actions are contrary and no compliance, their mental strategy is similar to those who comply.

The true “rebels,” if you can call them so, are ones who don’t step into second position. They organically don’t comply.

In the April 5 phenomenon, some lit multiple lamps in their balcony and burst crackers.

My sense is that they recreated the light-a-lamp scenario in their minds, picked up the significant pleasurable memory of Diwali, went into the Diwali state and acted what was naturally the next step—light many lamps, burst crackers.

For them to be able to do this, they had to stay strongly associated in the first position.

I got one data point to prove this was indeed so—BJP MLA Manju Tiwari fired a gun that evening and was later arrested. In an interview, she explained why she did so:

“When I came out I saw the entire city decorated with earthen lamps and candles. I felt excitement like it was Deepavali.”

Messaging for Pandemic Times

How do we put the learnings from the above reflections for effective messaging during Pandemic Times?

My sense is that a single one-size-fits-all kind of communication will backfire one way or another. Instead, multiple messages could be created. Some of these messages can actively use should/must patterns. Those messages would benefit from being specific, clear, and brief.

Other messages could invoke cultural metaphors or sense of community “we” ness and instead of being specific, these messages can be more like stories, vague, abstract with metamessage.

And there— a language pattern is put to good use.


1 thought on “Should/Must Language Patterns in Pandemic Times”

  1. Hi Bhavana,
    Loved the write up! Gave a lot of insight about usage of words such as must/should and the word “try”.I remember one of my classes where I was demonstrating the difference between trying and doing.I asked a student to try picking the book with out actually picking the book.The student found it difficult than picking the book.This just made me think that when you use the word “try” doing this problem or try solving this question ( I’m quoting this example as I teach Maths for higher classes ) you are actually tell them that you know what ideally you won’t be able to succeed doing the task,however you can try succeeded at it.There is a lot of uncertainty element in it,when you compare” do it ” and “Try doing it”.
    I totally relate the Authoritative nature of the word must and should.
    A good read indeed with lots of observation !
    Thanks for sharing !

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