Seven Dirty Social Work Terms

24 05 2012

I was recently called out for not being professional in my language by using the term “motherfucker.”

Fuck fuck fuck. Ok, I’m done now.

When I say the concern was that I wasn’t being professional, I’m sure you all agree. It would be unprofessional to use hard core profanity in the workplace, at court, or with a client. But I wasn’t in any of those places. Meaning that “not being professional” translated to “conduct unbecoming of a social worker,” or, a bit more accurately “not being ladylike.” Acting like a lady has never gotten anyone anywhere I wanted to go, so that doesn’t bother me terribly.

I’ve never been a believer in the “swearing means you’re unintelligent or inarticulate” line of thinking. Well, not since I was old enough to think critically and independently. It’s just such an easy line to trot out.

I’m a big fan of Kevin Smith. I saw Clerks when I was 13, on my dad’s recommendation. Two years later, he bought me tickets to see Smith speak live. This is what I tell people when they’re shocked at the language I use with my parents. Or at anything about me, really.

When people say profanity, swearing, “offensive” language is never necessary, or effective, it kind of baffles me. Have they never heard of George Carlin? Bill Hicks? Lenny Bruce? Quentin Tarantino? St. Francis of Assissi?* Listened to “Totally Fucked Fluffed” from Spring Awakening? Bad words can be an art. When used correctly, thoughtfully, and selectively, they get your point across.

We all have words that irritate us. Ninety percent of the people I know can’t stand to hear the word “moist.” Problem is, sometimes things are moist, and need to be described as such. My mother requested that I stop using the term “boner pills” to describe this country’s infatuation with insuring Viagra more readily than birth control. Personally, I object to the phrases “just to play devil’s advocate” and “check your privilege.” “Playing devil’s advocate” most often means “Allow me to be an asshole for no reason” and “check your privilege,” while generally a good idea, comes across as unnecessarily snotty and self-righteous. We’re all perfectly entitled to have pet peeves. Things that grate on our nerves. That we, therefore, avoid.

In terms of blog reading, I get that it’s not for everyone. If you are more offended and upset by my use of four letter words than you are by my discussions of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, then I think you have some strange priorities, but all right. Everyone has their non-negotiables, and if that’s one you can’t look beyond, then that’s fine.

But we don’t have that option out in our world of social work. Even if I object to the way that my clients talk, it’s probably not why they had a case called in, or why they sought services. Is it a safety issue? I suppose it could be, but that will have to be demonstrated. Oh, and simply saying, “it shows that they don’t respect themselves” is weak. We need to back that ass up. With facts.

When we go over rules the first day of teen group, using swear words is always brought up. The girls initially assume that our rules are similar to school, and someone mentions “no cursing.” As with every damn thing they say, I bring it back to the group. Is that a rule everyone agrees upon? Are people offended by swear words? What would be the pros and cons, the reasons for this rule? What works for us?

Every time, this has yielded the same results. They’re not offended by the words so much as the intent. They don’t give a rat’s ass puppy’s patoot if someone sprinkles a tale of their day with curses. They don’t like being cursed at. Called a bitch. Told “fuck you.” Who does? So that’s the rule. We can curse, but we don’t curse at each other. It’s never been a problem.

I have a family that puts my knowledge and use of those bad, naughty words to shame. It is constant. It would cause someone who objected to my declaration that a certain musical is motherfucking delightful to flutter their hands over their heart and call for Reginald to fetch the smelling salts, as they’d certainly caught the vapors.

However, this family follows my teen group rule.

That’s how it is in this family. Swearing is a part of their vocabulary. They don’t use it to hurt one another. Amongst themselves, these are just words. The family knows it doesn’t bother me.

The school social worker, however, overheard this and was scandalized. She was tempted to make a report for verbal abuse. I’ve heard verbal abuse go down, very often with nary a bad word. Telling a child she’s stupid and can’t do anything right struck me as much worse than saying, “I can’t believe I burned this fucking rice.”

The only real issue I saw was this family creating problems for themselves by swearing in inappropriate situations. These situations certainly include “on the phone with your daughter’s school.” We discussed it. Again, no problem since.

But that worker’s reaction did have some effect. It made this family feel judged, and misunderstood. It’s hard to work with someone when you feel that way.

As I said, I don’t swear at work. My supervisor doesn’t either. Usually. There was that one time, when things had all gone to shit poo for a family we’d worked incredibly hard with. She let the f-flag fly, once, in her office, when it was just me and her. It was fine. I got it.

I wouldn’t swear at a job interview, when meeting a significant other’s parents, at a doctor’s appointment, in front of my Gram. I also don’t swear at my Little Sister, or with children, particularly the ones I work with, in general. No matter what they say to me. Some things, like alcohol, coffee, and burlesque, are meant to be enjoyed by adults who have developed a sense of self control and propriety. Who are mature and know when it’s all right to let out a mother fucker Mother Hubbard, and when it most certainly is not. Some adults can’t handle their alcohol, some can’t handle their swearing. But it doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t partake.

A lot of times, I’m told this boils down to setting a good example. Even though I wouldn’t curse at work, I should be teaching clients that it’s impolite and unacceptable through my reaction to their speech.

We don’t want to get so caught up in how people are expressing themselves that we overlook what’s most important-what are they expressing? Is a kid cursing to be provocative and get attention, or because they’re so angry that they can’t do anything else, or because that’s just how they learned to speak? Are we upset because a parent’s language is hurting their child, or expressing negative feelings towards us, or because we have feelings about what words are inherently offensive that conflict with what this parent believes? As usual, I think we need to look at ourselves and consider our own motivations before we react, and find a reasonable middle ground. We constantly have to check our prejudices and assumptions in this work. That includes writing someone off as being a certain “type,” due to their fondness for swearing.

And remember that sometimes, the situation just calls for a “motherfucker.”

*St. Francis’ fondness for curse words has historically been denied.

Can we stop diagnosing fictional characters with Asperger’s?

23 04 2012

One of my more important takeaways from show choir social work school was that we need to start looking at mental health more similarly to the way we look at physical health. Not that we’re doing such a bang-up job with physical health, but the stigma that surrounds mental illness just isn’t there. Someone might not want to talk about having cancer, but they’re generally not ashamed of it. Before making a judgment of someone with a mental health issue, I try to replace that in my mind with a physical one. Would my reaction be different if that were the case? If yes, rethink. (Also, shut up.)

We always want more mental health awareness and openness. People have issues, and they shouldn’t be hidden. People talk about chronic physical disorders (though, I admit, my former supervisor could have kept her irritable bowel syndrome to herself) so it’s great that people are more aware of mental health issues and the effects they have.

Except that idiots now know what these things are.

Mental illness is talked about much more, but not necessarily always in a meaningful way. It’s part of our everyday vocabulary, because everyone’s aunt has seen an episode of Oprah about someone with a personality disorder, a 20/20 featuring a child with an attachment disorder, or a Law & Order about a detective’s bipolar family members.

This leads to us hearing things like the following:

  • “I swear, Mila Kunis looked anorexic. Gross.”

First of all, you do not speak ill of Ms. Kunis. Second of all, I knooow. Eating disorders, they are the ickiest! A body weight less than 85% of what’s expected for her height, probably accompanied by amenorrhea…wait, you don’t really think that this actress, or that bitch in your Spanish class, has a disorder, and therefore needs help. Somehow, cutting down someone else’s body type makes you feel better about yourself.

How is that not in the DSM?

  • “I’m just really depressed today.”

No. You’re sad because you’re human, the weather is a bit gross, and your job has been really boring lately. Now it”s tomorrow, and you feel better!  You don’t suffer from depression, and you should be happy about that.

  • “That little boy is so ADD.”

You can’t be ADD. You have ADD. And he’s eight years old and in a Barnes and Noble, what did you expect? A diagnosis of ADD actually requires a bit of interaction with a professional, not six minutes of observing a child knock over a book display.

  • “One minute she’s fine, the next she’s yelling at me. She is actually bipolar, I’m not kidding.”

But she’s not. She’s your mom, and sometimes you piss her off and sometimes you don’t. It’s a human relationship, not a disorder.

  • “Can I have some Purel? I know, I need to stop being so OCD.”

Again, you are not OCD, you have OCD. Except you don’t. You just like the smell of rubbing alcohol and don’t like the idea of colds.

  • “I was just thinking of everything I had to do and I had a panic attack. It’s fine now.”
I’m glad you’re fine, but you didn’t have a panic attack. A panic attack is when you think you’re dying of a heart attack and you go to the hospital. What you’re describing is a moment of feeling overwhelmed, that was remedied by writing up a to-do list.

When every mood swing is bipolar, every urge to alphabetize your boyfriend’s DVDs is obsessive compulsive (they just look better that way!) these terms lose their meaning. “Oh, your kid is autistic? Yeah, I think my nephew is a little autistic.” Not far from this is, “It’s not such a big deal! I was depressed in high school and I didn’t try to kill myself!” “My daughter had a little of that oppositional-defiance, but I just wacked it out of her.”

If you can discipline something out of your child, it’s not a mental illness. If a jog and a viewing of Bridesmaids brightens your mood and gets you on with your day, it’s not a major depressive episode. This is something to be grateful for, not defensive of. Not everyone has a little OCD in them. Your desire to drop ten pounds to look super hot over spring break in college may have been misguided, but it probably wasn’t a six week episode of anorexia nervosa. Mental illness is everywhere. But when we act like it’s actually everywhere, in everybody and in every action, we take away what it means, and we take away the legitimate struggle.

Part of having these terms in our lexicon is understanding how serious they are, and what they really mean. That many of these terms we throw around lightly are actually meant to refer to a lifetime disorder that requires constant management. It’s not something you diagnose yourself with one day, then get over the next.

I blame the internet.