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.