Should and be supposed to

What should I do? What am I supposed to do?
Are the two sentences the same?
So “should” and “be supposed to” are interchangeable?
Thank you!

In theory, no two words/phrases are interchangeable by definition. Even you might think that some two words are exact synonyms, I am sure that in some specific context, their meanings are slightly different. The best way to learn those differences is not to look up their definition in Merriam Webster or something, but rather to understand the usage of those words in hundreds of different contexts.

In your case, yes, “What should I do?” and “What am I supposed to do?” seem to be interchangeable in most situations. But again, I wouldn’t be surprised if a native speaker point out the nuance in a particular case.

Well said, you are right. They’re often interchangeable. Without having thought about it too much, I think that in some cases, the ‘supposed to’ construction often refers to exterior pressure/rules/norms, whereas the ‘should’ form does not necessarily imply that. So, “you’re not supposed to do that” implies that it’s against somebody’s rules. But “you shouldn’t do that” might just mean that it’s not a good idea for whatever reason.


There may be a very subtle distinction in this sense as well: if you say you are supposed to do something, it carries a slightly stronger implication that you’re not going to.
I’m supposed to study tonight (but I’m going to go out partying instead)
I should study tonight (so I’m going to go home and get my books out)
But it’s a very slight difference, and really, either of them would work in either of those contexts.


Of course it depends on the context, but generally speaking…

What should I do? is a way of asking for suggestions or concrete advice and it may even be asking others to choose from or vote on a set of possibilities.

Example: What should I do for my birthday? Where should I go? It’s my 30th and I don’t even know whether I care enough to plan anything. (This person can expect to receive any number of suggestions or ideas.)

Whereas, What am I supposed to do? is more of a rhetorical question; an emotional, sometimes hopeless, plea that is not asking for any kind of concrete answer or solution.

Example: It’s so hard living without my dad because there are some situations where only a father can help you through. But now I’m like… what am I supposed to do? (This person is expressing her emotions and is not expecting any specific kind of response.)

I don’t think they are interchangeable at all.

If you have a specific source or quote where either of these questions is being asked, I’d be glad to try to help you further understand the context.

Also I suggest that you do online searches for “what should I do” and “what am I supposed to do” (be sure to use quotation marks) and compare the way in which each of these questions is being asked.

Compare these two newspaper entries:

One is asking for advice: What should I do?

The other is a hopeless plea: What am I supposed to do? I have nowhere to go.