The Good Word

You Need To Read This

How need to vanquished have to, must, and should.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush sees needy people. “Anyone who harbors terrorists needs to fear the U.S.,” he stated recently. And in an address about Iraq: “The American people need to know that we’ll keep the forces there necessary to win.” And yet again: “State and local law enforcement officials … need to be a part of our strategy to secure our borders.”

The commander in chief is hardly alone in his affection for the word need. In the battle for pre-eminence among verbs of compulsion or requirement, need to has won a bloodless and overwhelming victory over must, ought to, should, and the former and longtime champion, have to, which yields only about a billion Google hits compared to two billion for need to.

Its popularity is partly explained by its versatility. Passive constructions in the form of “the floor needs to be washed” or “the video needs to be returned” deftly finesse the question of just who will be doing the washing or returning. And need to is just the thing for the currently very popular tense I call the kindergarten imperative, as in, “I need you to put away your crayons now.” This construction is also favored by flight attendants, who often inexplicably add the phrases “go ahead and” and “for me,” as in: “I need you to go ahead and put your seat backs in the upright position for me.”

The ascendance of need to dovetails perfectly with the long and sad decline of the traditional imperative mood. Sad, because it’s a great mood. Without it, the Ten Commandments would be the Ten Suggestions. In our society, where giving offense is always feared, the imperative is rarely heard. So, instead of the pleasingly direct “No Smoking,” we have the presumptuous “Thank You for Not Smoking” or the loopily existential “There Is No Smoking.” The last remaining preserve s of the imperative are the military, traffic signs (“Stop” has an estimable eloquence), innocuous adieus like, “Have a good one,” “Take care now,” and “You be good,” and, intriguingly, the titles of works of art. The biggest trove is pop songs, from “Come On Do the Jerk” through “Love the One You’re With,” all the way up to “Say My Name.” Command titles form a large subcategory of Beatles songs, including “Come Together,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Get Back,” “Help,” “Let It Be,” “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” and “Think for Yourself.”*

Need to does more than merely soften the blow of an order. Its genius, and the true source of its popularity, lies in the way it psychologizes directives. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word need was first used in an emotional context in 1929, in a translation from a French text. The formulation had its date with destiny 14 years later when psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper that set forth his pyramidical “Hierarchy of Human Needs.” The bottom layer contained the only requirements previously associated with the word, that is, for air, food, water, sleep, and protection from the elements. After these are satisfied, Maslow asserted, human beings are hard-wired to fulfill “needs” associated with safety, love and belonging, status and esteem, cognition, aesthetic appreciation, self-actualization, and self-transcendence.

The notion, tinkered with by Maslow until his death in 1970, had traction and then some. It led to a new and now-dominant meaning for the adjective “needy”—more or less the antonym of “emotionally self-sufficient”—and to a paradigm shift in both popular and academic psychology. I once overheard an undergraduate remark to a friend that she had been taught about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in every single college class she had taken.

Maslovian terminology has made such inroads in the language not only because the original idea was so powerful, but because need to is rhetorically brilliant. This was first recognized in the battlefield of child care. A Maslow epigone named Thomas Gordon, founder of “P.E.T.” (Parent Effectiveness Training), observed that when children are behaving in a way that “interferes with your ability to meet your needs,” shouting direct orders to them doesn’t work very well. So, he advised sending “I messages.” That is, a better alternative to, “Your room is a disaster area—clean it up this minute,” would be something like, “I get embarrassed when Mrs. Johnson is visiting and sees your room looking this messy, so I need you to clean it up.”

Gordon expanded the “I message” idea to the adult world. His copyrighted “Credo for My Relationship With Others” includes the classic sentence: “At those times when your behavior interferes with what I must do to get my own needs met, I will tell you openly and honestly how your behavior affects me, trusting that you respect my needs and feelings enough to try to change the behavior that is unacceptable to me.”

The Bushian “Anyone who harbors terrorists needs to fear the U.S.” certainly isn’t an I message, although it does have a petulant, lecturing undertone that evokes the nursery. The point is that the president—like the person who e-mailed me today that faculty members at my university “need to place their orders with the University Bookstore” and the sportswriter who wrote in my local paper that “the players need to be held accountable”—is trading on the word’s psychological connotation, with its subtle but ineluctable suggestion of strong inner forces at work. So are people who use it in the first person—”I need to go now.” The verb broaches no dispute: How can you argue with necessity?

Need to shines, as well, in passive-aggressive combat. Wife to husband: “Why do you need to play poker with the boys every Thursday?” By the time the husband comes up with the apt riposte—”I don’t need to; I want to and I like to”—it’s usually too late for anything but l’esprit d’escalier. And on my motel-room dresser last week, I found a deft new wrinkle on a familiar theme: “Should you feel the need to smoke in this room, we will feel the need to charge you a cleaning fee of $100.00.”

Need to is slightly infantilizing and definitely underhanded, but it works so well that at this point, it couldn’t possibly be dislodged from the popular lexicon. That makes one all the more appreciative of the noble minority who resist it. Whenever I hear a London Underground conductor declare, “Mind the gap,” or when I encounter the rare flight attendant who will simply and eloquently quote Bette Davis and say, “Fasten your seatbelts,” I have the same grateful reaction:

Thanks. I needed that.

Correction, July 17, 2006: This piece originally listed “Give Peace a Chance” as a Beatles song. The song is actually by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. (Return to corrected sentence.)