Need To – The Non-imperative Imperative

July 18, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images

Dispatcher: Which entrance is that that he’s heading towards?
Zimmerman: The back entrance... fucking punks.
Dispatcher: Are you following him?
Zimmerman: Yeah.
Dispatcher: Okay, don’t do that.
Zimmerman: Okay

If you followed the Zimmerman/Martin killing closely, you probably recognized that the dispatcher did not say, “Don’t do that.”   The correct transcript is:

Dispatcher: Okay, we don’t need you to do that.

Nowadays, we don’t tell people what to do and what not to do. We don’t tell them what they should or should not do or what they ought or ought not to do.  Instead, we talk about needs – our needs and their needs.  “Clean up your room” has become “I need you to clean up your room.”

The age of “there are no shoulds,” the age of needs, began in the 1970s and accelerated until very recently. Here are Google n-grams for the ratio of “need to” to “should” and “ought to.”

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

  It was Benjamin Schmidt’s Atlantic post (here) about “Mad Men” that alerted me to this ought/need change. Nowadays, we don’t say, “The writers on ‘Mad Men’ ought to watch out for anachronistic language.” We say that they “need to” watch out for it.  Schmidt created a chart showing the relative use of “ought to” and “need to” in selected movies from 1960 to 2011. 

All the films and TV shows in the chart are set in the 1960s.  It’s easy to see which ones were actually written in the 60s. They are more likely to use “ought.” The scripts written in the 21st century use “need.” The writers are projecting their own speech style back onto 1960s characters. The “Mad Men” writers might just as well have had the 1960s Don Draper say, “Peggy needs to shoot Starbucks an e-mail about the Frappuccino thing.” (Schmidt’s article has several other examples of “Mad Men” anachronisms you probably wouldn’t have noticed, e.g. “feel good about.”)

Real imperatives (“Stop that right now”) claim moral authority. So do ought and should. But need is not about general principles of right and wrong.  In the language of need, the speaker claims no moral authority over the person being spoken to. It’s up to the listener to weigh his own needs against those of the speaker and then make his own decision.   

No wonder Zimmerman felt free to ignore the implications of the dispatcher’s statement.  It was not a command (“Don’t do that”), it did not assert authority or the rightness of an action (“You should not do that”).  It did not even state what the police department needed or wanted.  It merely said that Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin was not necessary.  Not wrong, not ill-advised, just unnecessary.

If the dispatcher had spoken in the language of the 1960s and told Zimmerman that he should not pursue Martin,* would Trayvon Martin be alive?  We cannot possibly know. But it’s reasonable to think it would have increased that probability.

* Philip Cohen tells me that a TV commentator said that dispatchers have a protocol of not giving direct orders.  If such an instruction led to a bad outcome, the department might be held accountable.If so, this means that dispatchers themselves recognize need to as the non-imperative.


brandsinger said...

This is a very good post, Jay. I've noticed the emergence of "I need" in recent years and it's good to see this analysis with quantified indicators.

On your application to the dispatcher-to-Zimmerman exchange, however, there may be a flaw in your conclusion. Zimmerman lives in the same linguistic milieu as the dispatcher -- and thus understands and responds to the common usages of today, not those of the '60s. Since today people say "I don't need you to do that" -- meaning (in 60s parlance) "don't do that" -- then Zimmerman presumably got the intended message but ignored it.

Jay Livingston said...

You’re probably right that Zimmerman and the dispatcher share the same linguistic universe. But my guess is that they also recognize the old fashioned language and recognize that “Don’t do that” or even “You shouldn’t do that” is more forceful than “We don’t need you to do that.” As I said in the footnote, the dispatcher may have had good reason for being less forceful. If so, that means she recognizes the difference in these phrasings. That’s why I said my guess was that a more direct imperative might have saved a life. Of course, it’s impossible to know what would have happened. Hell, in this case, we’re not even certain about what did happen.

As for the “need” statement, one of the comments on this post at Sociological Images linked to this clip from “Office Space.” It well illustrates your point that “I need you to . . .” can be a pretty strong directive. But it also illustrates the hypocrisy of putting commands in the therapeutic language of needs.

And hey, how come you no blog no more?

brandsinger said...

I ought to post more on my blog but I don't need to...

That said, I'm getting back to it. Just wrote a little piece tonight.