The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “language”

The words we use

http://www.upworthy.com/watch-a-lesbian-attack-the-word-gay?c=ufb1

An effective use of humour to get the message across about how the words we hear (and use) can perpetuate oppression.

 

Watching your back

As social workers we regularly visit families alone – most teams don’t have enough staff for regular joint working – and that makes us vulnerable.  Often we think of that vulnerability as the direct risk of violence but that’s not the only risk.

Many years ago I had a male colleague whose female client suddenly and unexpedly exposed her breasts to him in order to show him some bruises.  He was clearly shaken.  In the office we covered our concerns with humour on that occasion but we all recognised this had been a high risk situation for him – long before there was the GSCC/HCPC to answer to.

Parents wanting to stop investigations or proceedings may be uncooperative or claim they cannot work with a particular social workers, knowing that each time there is a change in allocated worker there is a delay as the new person gets to know them and their history, with the possibility that the new social worker might be more easily manipulated (at least at first).

However very occasionally clients/service users take more extreme action in attempting to delay or prevent social workers from doing their jobs, by making allegations amounting to malpractice against the social worker.   Of course in the long term it’s only successful as a delaying tactic as making false allegations will only have a negative effect on the courts’ view.  However, at times like this the social worker can find themselves experiencing what many of our clients feel as they undergo an investigation.  And that can be a terrifying process as one social worker experienced when she was falsley accused, as reported via Community Care.

Knowing we have maintained our professionalism in practice, keeping our integrity and values intact, is our first defence of our own mental and emotional health when faced with malicious allegations.  But we get so used to working with distressed people who, under investigation, respond with strong emotions, often anger, that too often we push to one side threatening experiences, when we should be diligently recording even veiled threats.  In today’s open sharing of information, when we (ideally) get parents to sign and confirm the notes we put on their children’s files we have to consider how we record our observations and how the parent(s) will view what we have said.   However, putting our observations of threats in file notes, review or court reports, serves three key purposes.

Firstly, it’s good practice as sharing our observations with the client (at a later date perhaps when everyone has calmed down a bit) can provide opportunities to open up a conversation about how their words and actions are perceived by others and gives the client the opportunity to reflect on that; and it gives the worker the opportunity to check out different meanings of language used.  In particular the words used to describe anger can be very misleading: try asking a group of people to come up with 10 words to describe different levels of anger and then put them in order of extremity – they will usually come up with some very different choices for the most and least extreme words to describe anger.  Doing that exercise might help the client could be very informative and give the client the opportunity to correct our own impressions and interpretations.  It also gives them the opportunity to have their view recorded on file.

I recall being asked to visit an unallocated client where the concerns were quite low key but the mum had threatened ‘to set the dog on’ the next social worker who visited.  At the time I was still practicing as an unqualified worker and a student and was instructed to take with me another unqualified worker on the basis of the threat.  Needless to say the woman asked why we had to visit in pairs.  So I explained about the threat.  By this time I had met the dog, was sitting at the kitchen table leaning to one side with my wrist being gently held in the mouth by a small friendly dog with an erection.  She laughed and said she didn’t mean it and I could see the dog was harmless.  I explained that we have to take threats seriously.  Ultimately I concluded there was no reason to continue joint visits and in future visited on my own.  Fortunately I like dogs, I feel sorry for social workers who are afraid of them!

In another example of the changing use of language, I recall working with a young teenage new mum who described her baby as ‘sexy’.  Alarm bells were going off all over the place as all sorts of people envisioned her lining her baby up for men to abuse.  But the girl was 15/16 and using the language of her generation.  ‘Sexy’ was for her the ultimate in expressing her love for her child – you could see it in her body language and hear it in her tone of voice.  She was using the word in a similar way as sexy might be used to describe a new smart/good looking phone.  The older generations sitting around the child protection conference were not convinced!

But I digress.

The second reason for diligent recording is that it provides potentially important information for future social workers involved with the family.  If threats are used to detract from underlying issues, meticulously recording them can help build the picture of how the family functions and prevent further delays and distractions.

Finally, sadly, it is part of the armour we have in protecting our own backs.  If a malicious allegation is made we should be able to use our recording to (a) support our own memories of events and (b) provide evidence to investigators.

Rider: Of course, if we are genuinely concerned for our safety, physical or professional, this should be possible to keep ‘confidential’ via supervision, but then we should also be raising those concerns with senior staff and management anyway.

(The above refers mainly to working within children’s services but the same applies just as much in working in adults’ services)

Talking Heads

BBC news have reported on the work in a laboratory in Cambridge on the development of a talking head – this one taken from an image and the voice of Zoe Lister and called … Zoe …!

The ‘head’ will ‘say’ whatever you type in using a keyboard and in whatever tone of voice you set it to – happy, angry, sad, fearful, etc, and the news report focuses on the use of the head in communicating with each using existing technologies to move away from the use of keyboard and mouse to speech interaction.  Talking Avatars will be everywhere!

Which has resulted in mostly negative and critical comments online.  But what about another use – working with abused children in diagnostic and therapeutic ways?  And in teaching social skills such as how to recognise emotions; young children recognise a very narrow band of emotions in the human face and voice, even up to and into the early to mid teenage years.  Adults expect more of teenagers

There’s still some development work to be done, particularly on the accompanying facial expressions, but check out the report and comments using this linke: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21827924#FBM214031

Who says?

2012 12 16 - disabled sign in Copec garage toiletsI am so familiar with discussions in the UK over the choice of language and how it impacts on how we see other people, including the wide range of words and phrases that surround the concept of “disability”, that my first reaction when I saw this sign in a Chilean public toilet, was one of shock and repulsion.  To my English mind it sounds like “less valid”, and if I turn to my Spanish-English dictionary that is how it translates.  Google Translate tells me it means “handicapped”.

I’m not sure I want to say anything else about this sign, except that I hope it serves as a reminder as to (a) how much we have moved on in the last 100 years and (b) how much more there is still to achieve.

 

Making Assumptions

Some years ago I worked in a social work team where one of the social workers came from Glasgow.  Now this team was in southern England, nearly as far from Scotland as you could get.  When a newly qualified social worker joined us who also happened to be from Glasgow it was assumed that these two would have a natural understanding, and were put together for supervision purposes.  After all they were both from the same country and a long way from home, and the older more experienced social worker would surely be the ideal one to support the new worker?

What, in our southern ignorance, we did not realise was that they came from opposite sides of Glasgow.  Opposite cultures within the same city.  Opposing football teams to support.  Natural enemies even.

Fortunately their professionalism enabled them to overcome the differences in their cultures, and no doubt shake their heads at the southerners’ ignorance.

It’s easy to make assumptions like that.

Even in the setting up of asylum teams in the 1990’s we made the same mistakes.  There was somehow an assumption that because asylum seekers were in the same situation, escaping war torn countries, it was sometimes overlooked that they had escaped from opposing countries in the same war!  With hindsight it was obvious, but what foolish mistakes were made at the time.

While I was travelling in Siberian Russia for a while I happened to stay for a week in a town where I was the first European they had seen in living memory.  The evening before I was leaving a young English backpacker arrived in a bar on the other side of town.  Immediately telephone calls were made and mechanisms put in place to put us in touch with each other.  Let’s call him Jay.  It was naturally assumed, that being from the same country, we would want to meet up and talk.

Actually it was good to meet Jay, less because we were both English than because we were both travellers and could compare travel notes.  Having the same first language was merely an advantage.

The impression was given that if two Russians found themselves alone in a foreign country they would want to meet.  But I wonder if that is true?

Jay and I were several years apart in age, he was a recent graduate taking a gap year while I had studied in later life, he came from a relatively privileged background while I definitely originated from “working class” stock.  I was travelling by car, he was backpacking.  Back in England it was unlikely we would have naturally met up and socialised.

Staying in an Andean village, well stuck actually due to a breakdown, the villagers would come rushing over saying “amigo, amigo?” every time another European passed through.  The same assumptions were being made.

On another occasion I met two young English girls in a backpackers’ hostel in Costa Rica.  Well, I say ‘met’, but that is probably too strong a word for it.  We happened to be staying in the same dorm room in the same hostel.  They were clearly completely confounded to find someone old enough to be their mother, maybe even their grandmother, staying in such a hostel and never managed to look me in the eye such was their complete inability to know how to handle such a situation.

Age, class (yes it still exists), wealth, education, employment, sociability, family, sexual orientation, geographical location, politics, religion, hobbies and interests.  These and more are all potential divisive factors even in our home countries.  Sure, they can all be overcome, but how many times have I seen police and ‘front line’ social and health workers gravitate to share socialising because their jobs bring them into natural contact and there is a sense of safety in that familiarity?  And why is it unusual to see CEOs down the pub with the postman or plumber?

I’m not suggesting its right or wrong, it just is.  The lovely people in that small Siberian town might be surprised at how different the lives are of people from Moscow, and that maybe the mere sharing of the same language is not a foundation for anything more than a brief passing friendship, just as was my contact with Jay.

Scottish, English, African, Latin American, indigenous; wealthy and poor; young and old; educated or not (which has nothing to do with intelligence); capitalist, environmentalist, socialist; and more.  We are all a mixture of different ingredients, unique in our own way.  As we practice that difference in our own lives, let us also remember the differences in those we work with, both as colleagues and clients.

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