In contemplating this piece for ThursdayThunking one of the concerns that has gone round and round in my head is how to approach this topic without readers experiencing it as little more than pedantry; it wouldn't be the first time I have been accused of being pedantic! The more I think about it, however, the more I believe that language choice really matters. The words that people use to address or describe us to others can hurt us, make us feel small or humiliated or, conversely, they can lift us up, help us to feel more confident, positive or capable. The language choices we make can also tell other people something about who we are; our beliefs and attitudes and whether the language we use reflects social work values.
In this piece, I will consider some frequently used language choices and their potential to have a negative impact on the people they refer to. My hope is that by becoming more aware of the words we use, and how value positions might be inferred from the way we write about practice, practice educators and tutors might feel better equipped to guide students. In my view, exploration of language choices can unlock opportunities for further discussion about values informed practice, thereby helping students to develop a deeper understanding of the importance of social work values.
In order to qualify as a social worker, a student is expected to demonstrate social work values alongside knowledge and skills as set out in the Framework for Social Work Education in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2003) the Key Capabilities in Child Care and Protection (2006) and in line with the Global Definition of Social Work (IFSW, 2014).
We know that students often find it difficult to articulate their values (Woodward & Mackay, 2012) and that assessment of student values is far from straightforward (Woods, 2015). As Woods (2015) highlights, there is a risk of assuming that students on social work courses have an unproblematic value base unless an overtly racist/sexist/homophobic comment is made or disrespectful practice is observed.
Rather than assuming a default position that values are sound unless something happens to prove that assumption wrong, I would suggest that practice educators and university tutors have a responsibility to not only assess student values but also to provide opportunities for these to be developed and expressed. The positive articulation of social work values might occur through a creative piece of practice, which recognises inherent disadvantage and addresses need in a way that provides opportunities for growth and empowerment. Equally, the positive expression of values might be evidenced through discussion of work in supervision or through writing about practice. This can be through professional case recording and report writing as well as in the work that is submitted to the University for assessment; case summaries and so on.
The importance of role models
One aspect of becoming a member of a profession involves adopting the language of those who are already members. For most social work students, this is unlikely to be a conscious activity but being influenced by those around them seems inevitable. Like it or not, therefore, those of us who are tutors, practitioners contributing to teaching, practice educators, link workers and placement team members all have a part to play as role models.
In my experience, students often adopt the language being used by those around them without necessarily questioning it. By tuning into case discussions, reading agency recordings and reports, students learn helpful ways of expressing sensitive issues, building relationships and sharing ideas with other professionals. Such immersion into team culture can, however, also involve picking up jargon, and language used as short hand ways of referring to people and their circumstances which might be seen as discriminatory when considered more closely.
The social work profession prides itself on our distinctive value base. We have been known to draw distinctions between ourselves and other professionals; contrasting the medical and social models of disability for example (Oliver & Sapey, 2006) and distancing ourselves from the cliché of medical language: "the appendix in bed six". I wonder, however, whether some of the jargon we use as social workers is any less dehumanising? If we refer to people as "cases", reduce people's identity to one aspect of who they are, "mum" and describe them according to their areas of difficulty, "drug addict" are we really promoting social work values of social justice, equality, dignity and respect?
The following section sets out a few examples of language choices that regularly crop up in student writing and raise interesting areas for consideration.
Referring to people by an aspect of who they are can represent them in a way that diminishes perceptions of them as a whole person. Describing someone as an alcoholic, "John is a 56-year-old alcoholic" for example, brings one negative aspect of John's life to the fore and can define him by this difficulty. An alternative might be; "John is 56 years of age, married with two children and he tells me that he worked as an office manager until having to give up work six months ago, as a consequence of an alcohol problem." I would suggest that this introduction presents a very different, more respectful and holistic picture of John as a person. It also suggests that the writer has listened to the way that John has presented himself.
Similar arguments can be used to advise against referring to people as "drug addicts", "offenders", "wheelchair users", "schizophrenics", "immigrants" and so on. All of us are people first and the way that social workers and students refer to individuals in both verbal and written communication can either uphold or undermine social work values of respect for inherent worth and dignity of all people.
In a similar vein, I would suggest that terms such as "the elderly" and "the disabled" are equally problematic as they imply that everyone over a certain age or with a physical disability can be grouped together as if they all have the same needs and/or experiences. Whilst grouping people together is a well-established way of providing services, I would suggest that defining people by their needs could diminish respect for individuality and the diversity of humanity.
Conveying a non-judgemental attitude
Sometimes the terms used to describe a practice situation can imply judgement or criticism of the individual. On marking work by students in adult services settings, I have often read descriptions of a person "admitting" that they were unable to dress independently or that they are no longer able to walk to the shops. The student's choice of the term "admitting" probably reflects the sense of shame experienced by an individual as they come to the realisation that they are not managing. If we are putting into practice social work values, however, do we not have a role in helping people to appreciate that it is alright to accept help? When writing about such situations, terms like, "acknowledging", might help. This is a subtle change but could make a significant difference both to the person reading their assessment report as well as in terms of readers assessing students' ability to integrate social work values in to their practice.
Similarly, I have read accounts with statements along the lines of: "Nadia claimed that she was tired". The use of the term "claimed" implies that that the student didn't believe her. This might have been the case and if so, could helpfully have been explored drawing on evidence to support this assessment. Without such a discussion, the statement simply comes across as judgemental and the term, "explained" or "said" would be more neutral.
The gender dimension
Referring to a woman as a "lady" is, on the surface, a respectful way of referring to someone. The word is, however, bound up with ideas of class and, from a feminist perspective, we might consider our understanding of "ladylike" behaviour; are some women worthy of the title whilst others are not?
A pet hate of mine is the use of the terms 'male' and 'female' as nouns; "Anne is a 21 year old female", "John is a 56 year old male". These are accurate statements and it can be important to understand someone's gender so what is the problem? The terms male and female refer to the sex of a species; they might be human but might equally be lab rats. I would suggest that, if we want to represent a person-centred approach in our practice, use of the terms, "woman", "man", "girl" or "boy" would be more appropriate. Of course, sensitivity to people who identify as non-binary or whose gender identity is in transition should also be considered, and their terminology preferences respected.
The following example has some personal resonance for me: When both my, now adult, children were small they had short stays in hospital for treatment. I remember shifting uncomfortably in my seat when nursing staff asked: "How is mum doing?" "What does mum think?". Whilst this appeared to come from a place of well-intended kindness, I felt both patronised and slightly miffed that they hadn't bothered to find out my name.
When I am reading students' case studies and reports, this way of referring to mothers appears regularly. Interestingly this is often paralleled by the practice educators' reports, so it would appear that students are adopting the language used within the agency and/or by their practice educator role model.
Expressions such as, "I aimed to ensure that mum fully understood…." are a common form of short hand in social work and social care. This enables us to have conversations which get straight to the point; we are working with the woman in her role as a mother, so this is our focus and we don't have to keep reminding others who is who, which can happen when we use names. All of this seems reasonable. Without realising it, however, we may be inadvertently disrespecting the woman in a number of ways: Firstly, this use of the term serves to define a person by one aspect of who she is as if all "mums" are part of a homogeneous group. Secondly, it fails to consider her as a whole person but in relation to just one of her roles. Thirdly, by not using her name we are potentially diminishing her sense of identity and self-worth. Becoming a social work service user comes with stigma as it is. I wonder whether not being addressed by our name might also feel like a punishment?
In our day-to-day lives, we are careful to get people's names right and pronounce them correctly because we don't want to offend people (I'm Sara pronounced Sarah - don't ask!). When people get our names wrong it can feel as though we are not important enough for others to make the effort to get this right. So what might it feel like to people who use services when we don't use their names at all?
When I read students' work where the generic "mum" has been employed, I try to use this as an opportunity for discussion around how we convey social work values in our writing. My advice goes along these lines: Firstly, referring to X's mum rather than just "mum" acknowledges her individuality to some extent. In academic writing, however, "mum" is rather informal so "X's mother would be preferable". Once you have clarified who X's mother is, she might be referred to by name (a pseudonym to preserve anonymity in academic writing).
So where does this take us?
As I think these examples illustrate, choosing language, which upholds social work values can feel like a bit of a minefield. How do students find their way through? In my view, the positive expression of social work values in speech and writing necessitates reflection on the meaning of words and the impact of jargon in order to choose respectful, inclusive and strengths based language.
Reflective journal writing offers a vehicle for identifying language dilemmas with exploration of these through discussion in supervision. Exercises such as undertaking a writing task for supervision incorporating principles of strengths based practice(Saleebey, 2006)might be helpful. Seminar and student group discussions can also help to raise awareness and encourage debate. In order to be effective, both student supervision and classroom learning environments have to feel safe for students to try out ideas and sometimes get things wrong.
Through these musings, I am not intending to set myself up as a paragon of linguistic virtue. Like most people, I am guilty of making insensitive language choices. I am however keen to explore this aspect of my practice and think it might be time for a conversation if others are happy to join in? I suggest that we could all benefit from creating opportunities for safe exploration of language, where students, practitioners, link workers, practice educators and tutors can reflect on the potential impact of our choices.
International Federation of Social Workers (2014) Global Definition of Social Work [Internet] Available: https://www.ifsw.org/what-is-social-work/global-definition-of-social-work/ (accessed 20.9.18)
Oliver, M and Sapey, B (2006) Social Work with Disabled People, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
Saleebey, D (2006) The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice, Boston, Pearson, Allyn and Bacon
Scottish Executive (2006) Key Capabilities in Child Care and Protection, Edinburgh: Scottish Executive
Scottish Government (2003) Framework for Social Work Education in Scotland, Edinburgh, Scottish Government
Woods, T (2015) Practice educators' experiences of facilitating and assessing student values and ethics learning: constructing dialogue. Social Work Education Vol. 34, 8, pp.936-951
Woodward, R and Mackay, K (2012) Mind the Gap! Students' Understanding and Application of Social Work Values. Social Work Education Vol.31, 8, pp.1090-1104
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