Undoing Shoulds: Fuzzy words

Refining your

most basic life tool

 (many words are

slippery and fuzzy)


To create effective and actionable understandings in any dialogue (or monologue), it’s essential to establish clear denotations of important words—which could otherwise be misunderstood.

Many are negligent.


Many writers and speakers are notoriously negligent at clarifying their intended meanings (whatever they might be). As a result, we cannot be clear about some of their communications.


“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” -Alan Greenspan (American economist and Chair of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006, 1926-)


I’d like to avoid Alan’s predicament.


Would you agree with me on what freedom means?


Who’s not for justice, fairness, equality, and freedom? Two answers: 


  • Almost everybody would support these values if we leave their meanings vague and unspecified.  

  • Far fewer would support these values if the speaker provided concrete meanings for each of these feel-good words. Fuzzy words like these are bandied about because most of us have positive associations when hearing or reading such words. But without knowing the speaker’s concrete referents, we cannot know if we’re actually in agreement with them, much less act in concert in support of those ideas.


“We are all different. Yet we are all God’s children. We are all united behind this country and the common cause of freedom, justice, fairness, and equality. That is what unites us.” -Barbara Boxer (a former American Senator, 1940-)

What would a Libertarian think?


A Libertarian will hear the word “freedom” as meaning “absence of force or the threat of force, whether made by individuals, organizations, or governments, including each person’s right to engage in any and all voluntary agreements with any others, as long as they respect the same rights for others.”

What would a Progressive think?


A Progressive, in contrast, will hear the word “freedom” as including, “freedom from poverty, freedom from a poor education, freedom from discrimination, freedom from exorbitant medical fees, and many other such similar freedoms.”


Libertarians and Progressives will agree on some ideas of freedom (like freedom of speech), but will go head-to-head on others. A government that supports the entire Libertarian meaning of freedom cannot, at the same time, support the entire Progressive meaning.


But people who use the word freedom (like Barbara Boxer) rarely define it clearly, implying a false sense of agreement and understanding between peoples.

I don’t know how a politician could communicate clearly AND get elected (it seems that a majority of people can “agree” only if they don’t know that they are not really in agreement).


I am not a politician. I can understand why politicians (and others) are reluctant to concretize the meanings of the words they use (because they will lose supporters). I am not looking for “supporters.” I am interested in all of us having lives that we love. If I see a path that will create that result, I will point to that path. In order to do that, you and I need to have mutual concrete understandings of the terms that I use (especially ones that have multiple, even conflicting, concrete meanings, varying with each speaker/listener).


Important new meanings of four common words that I define to ensure clarity in our partnership:


  • Now (always capitalized) — that part of you whose job is to take care of your now, to be happy in the now and near now.

  • Next (always capitalized) — that part of you whose job is to take care of the your future, to be happy in your future and near future.

  • Oneself (always capitalized) — that part of you whose job is to take care of yourself, your own body, mind, and spirit, both for your Now and your Next.

  • Others (always capitalized) — that part of you whose job is to take care of others, please others, and look good to others.

Fuzzy words (or floating abstractions)


A floating abstraction (fuzzy word) is a concept detached from existence, a concept that a person adopts from others without knowing the concept’s exact definition. Alternatively, it is a concept or idea divorced from reality, which the speaker or listener has not reduced to its referents. Floating abstractions typically carry a positive or negative connotation, even though they lack an unambiguous denotation.


Example: the words “right” or “wrong” are concepts that are often loosely detached from concrete reality (depending on the context they are used within and the intended impact of the speaker). When a client says to me, “I want to make the right choice,” I will ask them, “What evidence would you need in order to know that you had made either the right choice or the wrong one?” They then become clear that their statement had little operational meaning, even though it seemed as if it did when they originally spoke it.

Other words (and some phrases) that are sometimes or often used fuzzily are:

  • All, always, never

  • Altruism

  • Bad karma

  • Because

  • Behind on things, things are waiting for me

  • Best (do your)

  • Better safe than sorry

  • Bitch, jerk

  • Caring, uncaring

  • Catch up, get caught up

  • Comfortable, uncomfortable

  • Common good

  • Competition

  • Considerate, inconsiderate, sensitive, insensitive

  • Convenient

  • Conviction

  • Cooperative, uncooperative, stubborn, agreeable, disagreeable

  • Deserving, not deserving, worthy, unworthy

  • Difficult, hard, struggle, tough

  • Discipline

  • Discrimination (racism, sexism)

  • Do better (where "how much better" is not clearly specified)

  • Do my best (try my best)

  • Doesn’t work, is not working

  • "Don't care what others think"

  • Don't worry

  • Duty, obligation

  • Efficiency

  • Effort

  • Energy (taking up my energy)

  • Enough, not enough, good enough, not good enough^

  • Entitled

  • Equality

  • Err on the side of caution

  • Excellence

  • Excuse

  • Exploit

  • Failure, success

  • Fair, unfair, just, unjust, justified, unjustified

  • Fake news

  • Fault

  • Flaw

  • Forgive

  • Freedom

  • Generous, tight-fisted

  • Give me a minute, I'll be back in a minute

  • Giver, taker

  • Giving back

  • Good, bad, right, wrong, sin, dark side

  • Good of the family

  • Have a right

  • Helpful

  • Hope, expectation

  • Hopeless

  • Honest, dishonest

  • Honor, honorable

  • Hypocrite

  • Ideal

  • I already know the right answer...

  • I won’t look good to others

  • I want/need to prove that...

  • I don't have enough time

  • I don't have time for...

  • I don’t understand why...

  • I’ll do whatever it takes

  • I'll get back to you

  • I'll see you soon

  • I'll call you later

  • I'll try my best, I'll try hard

  • I’m just trying to explain

  • I told you so

  • It's their loss

  • Important

  • Improve, improvement

  • Inappropriate

  • Independent, dependent, self-sufficient

  • Information, education

  • Integrity, lack of integrity

  • Keep myself occupied

  • Later (decide or do)

  • Lazy, hard working, diligent

  • Listening to your conscious

  • Living up to your potential

  • Long way to go

  • Loser, winner

  • Love, hate

  • Loving, unloving

  • Loyalty, disloyalty

  • Manipulate

  • Many things waiting for me

  • Marriage, divorce

  • Materialistic

  • Mature, immature

  • Maybe, perhaps, if I have time

  • Mistake

  • More (where "how much more" is not clearly specified)

  • Must, must not, have to, got to, putting off

  • Need, not need

  • Need to catch up

  • Need to get done

  • Negative

  • Never give up (never quit)

  • No pain, no gain

  • No matter what, whatever it takes, somehow

  • None, no one, never

  • Normal, average

  • Not enough time

  • Not ready

  • On hold

  • Opinionated

  • Optimistic

  • Patient, impatient

  • Patriotic

  • Persistence, quitting

  • Pessimistic

  • Polite, impolite, good mannered, ill mannered

  • Politics

  • Positive

  • Pride

  • Professional

  • Promise

  • Proper, improper, appropriate, inappropriate

  • Prove

  • Punctual, late

  • Put up with

  • Racist, prejudiced

  • Ready, not ready, not the best timing

  • Reasonable, unreasonable, stupid

  • Rejection (being rejected)

  • Respectful, disrespectful

  • Responsible, irresponsible

  • Right thing, wrong thing (doing the)

  • Safe

  • Selfish, unselfish, greedy

  • Self-discipline

  • Self-sabotage

  • Sexist

  • Shameless

  • She knows better

  • Should, should not, supposed to (see below)

  • Sin, virtue

  • Smart

  • Someday

  • Soon

  • Struggle

  • Stupid, ridiculous

  • "Telling it like it is"

  • Things to do

  • Things I have to do

  • Tolerating

  • Too (as in too hot, too angry, too fat)

  • Too many things to do

  • Trust, betrayal

  • "Trust me"

  • Try

  • Unconditional love

  • Unselfishness

  • Use somebody

  • Waiting

  • Want

  • Waste, recycle

  • Wasting time

  • Weird, strange, crazy

  • Why me?

  • Willpower

  • Worthy, unworthy

  • Why did you..., I don't understand why...

  • Work

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