They’re only three little words, but they can say a lot. I’m not talking about “I love you,” or “Who’s your TA?” or anything else with such obvious (and earth–shattering) meaning. I’m referring to the insidious little phrase, “I have to.”

I say it, you probably say it — it peppers conversations like a pronoun. “I have to go to a meeting”; “I have to do an interview”; the list goes on and on. And on the surface, it may just seem like a normal way to talk about all the things we in the Penn community do. But recently I’ve been wondering what it means when I or anyone else instinctively describe daily plans as a set of miniature burdens, of tasks we apparently are compelled to do.

For one thing, I think it’s safe to say that sometimes we like to sound weighed–down by demands because it makes us feel important. Whether it’s out of insecurity in a competitive environment or other pressures, whether it’s conscious or not, lots of Penn students talk themselves up. Therein lies the appeal of a phrase like “I have to,” which turns a night out to a BYO with a box of Franzia and some kids you did a summer program with into an obligation that hints at the range of people you know here, or the resume–building you’ve done. “Oh, I’m going to be late tonight because I have to get dinner with people from my summer research internship.” Suddenly, it almost sounds classy.

To be fair, “I have to” also gets tacked onto more pressing commitments, such as exams that require cramming, job hours that need to be logged and concrete student group activities that need to be managed. I’m not denying that our responsibilities can be stressful, and it is perfectly normal, if not healthy, to vent. Even so, lately I’ve had to ask myself: what awful monster is making me do anything? Who volunteered me for these clubs? Who decided to spend hours on Skype instead of studying, so now I “have to” plant myself in Fisher next to a bunch of people who appear to be staring into the face of death? Is there some invisible hand that cares enough about my life to bind me by blood oath to iCal?

The answer is, there isn’t. At the end of the day, too many of the responsibilities I complain about are ones I signed up for. And (nearly) every time I slip in an “I have to,” I’m basically denying ownership of my choices. Not so classy.

So, one of my goals this spring is to cut down on the term and think of a better semi–catch phrase (preferably one more inspired than “show me the money”). I just can’t work on it tonight—there’s somewhere I really have to be.