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.

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?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to SocialJerk! (Live accordingly.)

1 08 2011

There are certain words and phrases that tend to shut conversation down. You can’t argue against them. Attempting to do so is considered to be in poor taste. If you’re criticizing someone, and a friend says, “His wife’s in a coma,” you kind of have to shut up. Questioning someone on a particular practice ceases when told, “It’s my religion.” And it seems that the same goes for, “It’s an issue of respect.”

Respect is the most overused and poorly understood word in the English language. As a social worker, I hear it approximately eleventy billion times per day. “My teenage son has no respect!” Um…duh? “Why should I respect my teacher if she doesn’t respect me?” Because you don’t get to grade her. “These girls dress slutty because they have no respect for themselves.” Is that accurate? I dress my trampiest when I feel good about myself. “SocialJerk swears too much, she obviously has no respect.” She obviously was raised in Brooklyn.

It’s always the first thing that comes up when we set ground rules in my teen groups as well. Someone immediately suggests “respect” as a rule. I write it down. Then I ask, “What does that mean?”

You would think I asked them to present me with a unifying theory of physics.

“What do you mean, ‘what does that mean?’ Respect! It means respect.”

So we go over it, more and more. How do we show respect? What does that look like? How do you know someone is being disrespectful? Is it an attitude or an action? You know, annoying social work-y questions.

My helpful dictionary app defines respect as a verb meaning “to hold in esteem or honor.” Basically, to look at someone or something and think that they deserve to be treated a certain way. To treat them the way you want to be treated. To put them ahead of yourself.

How did such a simple, direct concept become so convoluted? I’m not trying to be controversial here, I’m not against respect. But considering how much people talk about it, especially in my work, you would think we’d see more examples of it.

Instead, I see more examples of irony. People screaming and disturbing others in the office, to make sure everyone knows that, “this bitch ain’t got no respect!” A mother telling her thirteen year old daughter that she needs to stop “getting with all these nasty boys in the neighborhood, because people think you’re fast. I want you to have respect for yourself.”

I don’t know about you, but my mother calling me the village bicycle would certainly increase my self-respect.

So many of these admonishments for “respect” are directed at women and girls. It’s an easy way to convey that faux concern. It’s not that I’m being judgmental, it’s that I’m worried about this girl! Those short shorts clearly illustrate that she has zero respect for herself. There is an inverse relationship between the length of your clothing and the amount of self-respect you have. Tube tops and self respect? Mutually exclusive.

Ask any teen girl, she’ll tell you that respect is the most important part of a romantic relationship. Many will then blame other girls for her boyfriend’s cheating, cheat to get back at him, make out with her female friends at a party to get his attention, and not leave immediately the first time he hits her or calls her a bitch.

We’re teaching our girls to talk a good game, but I don’t think we’re really teaching them a whole lot of meaning. Everything is respect or disrespect. It’s so watered down that it’s meaningless. It’s a buzzword. Much like “think outside the box,” “self-care,” or “SJ, this is a staff meeting, please stop coloring,” it seems like the more you hear it, the less it means.

When I worked in a pre-school program, we got a bit nosy and asked a bilingual three year old, “Why is daddy in jail?” She gave us her sassiest look and replied “Porque, no me respeta.” Daddy’s in jail, because he doesn’t respect you. This is a punishable offense, now? Clearly she was repeating what her mother said. But what was the real message there?

That thirteen year old I work with was told that because her boyfriend gave her hickeys, he doesn’t respect her, and she doesn’t respect herself. Erroneous. He did it because he is in ninth grade, overeager, and lacks finesse. What matters is the way he treats her, the way he makes her feel about herself. Not these unwavering, written in stone regulations.

Respect is important, obviously. Of course it’s a crucial part of a relationship. And telling someone that they don’t respect themselves, their parents, or their community because they do something you don’t like or agree with belittles the person and the concept. If something really is as important as we all agree “respect” is, we should probably be able to comfortably define it.

Without a Droid app, that is.