What’s in a name?

3 11 2011

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?

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10 responses

3 11 2011
Sarah

I like this post, especially because it’s not really something we explicitly discuss in our MH training. I’m 26, but I apparently look much younger (is it my fault for wearing sunscreen and preventing wrinkles?). I prefer that my clients and I go by first names, though I realize this is not always ideal. As you’ve said, sometimes elderly clients or clients from a different cultural background really should be called Ms. X or Mr. X. There are lots of implications for the therapeutic dynamic at play here, and it can be challenging to juggle the different factors going on. Ultimately, I think we have to take into account what works best for the relationship and just go with it.

14 11 2011
socialjerk

Thanks! It’s interesting to see the issues that come up so frequently that aren’t really covered in training. It’s hard to balance at times that what makes me comfortable (first names) might be off-putting for some clients. Like you say, we have to take the entire relationship into account.

4 11 2011
ECMH Nerd

I hear you. I also feel this way when I’m working with Spanish speakers. Do I use the formal version of you, usted, to show that I am respectful? Or is that too cool and distancing? Some of my clients use the informal tu with me right away so I go with that. But, as you said, there’s a power dynamic there so I think they often look to me to set the rhythm when really I’m just trying to follow their cultural norms…it can be an endless cycle of trying to be nice and respectful.

But today i realized i had built a relationship when a client told me ‘well, to be truly honest with you…’ three different times. Though this makes me wonder if, in our previous half a dozen meetings she had been less than honest. I’m currently choosing to take it as a sign of positive relationship building.

14 11 2011
socialjerk

The balance between respect and comfort is so tricky. Especially when there are issues of age and culture.

I have a client who always tells me, “OK, I’m going to be very honest with you” prior to dropping a bomb. I’m glad it’s coming out, but…

4 11 2011
Nadia

I just go by Nadia. My maiden name is hard and my married name would cause heads to explode. I never grew up addressing people as Mr or Ms (heathen!) so i feel awkward being addressed as that. I have a grandmother in her 70s who’s grandkids I work with and I address her (and all my parents for that matter) by their first names. I get the sense this gma would not not take to me addressing her as Ms. … I think if someone told me they ha a preference or referred to themselves as Mr or Ms I’d follow suit. On the other hand – all the great Drs I work with who see my kids (and I see daily) – I have a hard time not addressing them as Dr … I think that’s kind of strange 😉

14 11 2011
socialjerk

I grew up addressing my friends’ parents by their first names, but grandmothers were always Ms. so-and-so. I remember asking my great aunt why I called her Aunt, when I called my other aunts by my first name. She told me that it was because she was “really old,” and it would be disrespectful to call her by her first name. It’s funny the things that stick with you!

10 11 2011
sarahk

I always go by my first name with clients. I actually feel weird giving out my last name (though I do it when requested) because it’s very unique and google-able.

14 11 2011
socialjerk

The only people with my last name are my brother and my sister-in-law. I need to be very aware of what I have visible online! (Those Halloween pictures were cute in college, but no more.)

17 11 2011
Nectarine

Interesting, because I’ve been working for 5 years and have NEVER thought about this. I was not raised calling people by Mr. or Ms. whatever, and refer to all my clients by their first (or other preferred) name. I’m hoping now that I haven’t insulted anybody!

22 11 2011
socialjerk

Isn’t it nice when I can give you new things to worry about? 🙂

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