I’ve talked liberally about the difficulty of keeping track of the kids on my caseload, due to their love of nicknames. It’s hard to know who you’re asking for or speaking to.
But we’re so much easier, right? I would think so, but it never turns out to be true. So often, I’ll call a new family that’s been referred to me, introduce myself, set up an appointment, only to have them come into the office asking to see “the social worker.” All right. This is a social work agency. Can you be more specific. “She called me. It was a woman.” Again, this is a social work agency. Almost all of our workers are women with functioning phones.
No wonder our receptionist is starting to go off the deep end.
Once we actually get to know each other, it should become more clear. Of course, it doesn’t. Not always.
I remember my cousin’s engagement party (it’s a bit blurry, there was an open bar after all) when her soon-to-be mother-in-law approached her. She explained that she wanted my cousin to decide what she wanted to call her mother-in-law. Apparently, the groom’s mother had been married for thirty years, and still had no idea how to refer to her own in-laws. It had gone beyond a point where it could be discussed.
It seems crazy (though I will admit I’ve never called my boyfriend’s parents anything.) But it happens with clients.
Some of my participants are grandmothers raising their grandchildren. I cannot call an elderly woman by her first name. It is against my extremely respectful nature. When I interned with homebound senior citizens, I always called them Mr., Ms. or Mrs., and their last name.
Most clients were happy to meet such a respectful little scamp. (I was just recently mistaken for a junior high student, so five years ago, this was a reasonable way to describe me.) One woman, though, did not appreciate it.
“My name is Mary!” she yelled into the phone at any worker who called. We finally agreed that it was acceptable for me to call her Miss Mary. Something we were both comfortable with.
Generally, I go by the rule of calling someone whatever they introduce themselves by. Whether it’s a first name or a last name. But there are times when this doesn’t work. Sometimes the person is introduced my someone else. Sometimes they’re following your lead. As a result, I have some mothers who I just muddle through every time.
I’ll get a call telling me Ms. Smith is on the line. Oh, ok. So that’s what I’ll say. I answer, only to hear, “Hi, it’s Sara Smith.” Dammit. Now I’m thrown off! What do I choose? Maybe I’ll follow her lead, just like they taught me in
the Hunger Games social work school. See what she calls me.
I always introduce myself as SJ. Some other workers insist on a title and last name. I think sometimes this is cultural–either in terms of ethnicity, or agency culture. Most ACS workers I know go by their last names. As a result, they introduce me as Ms. Jerk, no matter how many times I refer to myself as SJ.
I don’t want the young people I work with thinking of me as someone like a teacher, which is what Ms. Jerk sounds like.
Also, my (actual) last name is so complicated to most people that I prefer not to get into it.
However, some young people, and their parents, feel the same way about calling me SJ as I did about calling that elderly woman Mary. They just can’t do it. And far be it from me to interfere with the way parents have instructed their children to be polite.
Many parents correct their children when they refer to me as SJ, tell them to say, “Miss SJ” instead. It only bothers me if a child just says Miss, because I kind of feel like this means they can’t remember my name.
When the kids call me Miss SJ, their parents usually do as well. So that also creates a problem. If the parent is giving me that level of respect, particularly if they’re older than me, I need to give it back to them. Otherwise we’re setting up a faulty power dynamic in which we’re not equals. Our work will fail, we will be unable to communicate, and this may lead to anarchy and deaths.
Am I reading too much into this?
Introductions, and names, are important. They lay the groundwork for the work we’re going to do. I notice that as I become more comfortable with a family, I’ll use their nicknames more often. As parents become more comfortable with me, they’ll often drop the “Ms. Jerk” for something less formal. I always take this as a postive sign.
Even the simplest things become a little more complicated in social work, don’t they?