Just words

“Reading my SW files a few years ago and seeing me described as manipulative by a teacher I’d trusted shattered me. That teacher has since passed (while I was still at the school) and I’d grieved her for years. Was tough to take and people think it’s just words. It’s not. I was 14”

@Careleaver123 [1]

Can you think of a time when you’ve felt labelled? Or put in a category or a group you didn’t feel part of or felt ashamed to be included in?

Or a time you felt unfairly blamed?

Or a time when you read something or heard something you really didn’t understand?

How did (or does) it make you feel?

I’ve asked a few groups of social workers these questions recently, then asked them to describe how being labelled or blamed or excluded felt to them.

Here are some of their words.

Angry. Frustrated. Disempowered. Dehumanised. Stupid. Sad. A number. Upset. Not valued. Worthless. Judged. Lonely. Embarrassed. Helpless. Ashamed. Alone.  Traumatised. Powerless. Unheard. Unloved. Not wanting to be me.

Language is powerful. Our words can build bridges. Welcome and encourage and soothe. And our words can build walls. Label and blame and exclude.

Ironically, the very same language we adopt as part of our professional identity and to feel included, so often excludes the people we’re employed to support and to serve and denies individuals their own identity.

“We’re so used to euphemism and there is so much identity tied up with using the accepted medical language between colleagues that most of us never stop to listen to that language and its implications.”

@eye_polly [2]

The words we use to describe people and behaviours reveal so much about our attitudes and our values too.

The casual dismissal

The distance.

The distain.

“The lifetime of distress caused by a passing comment is testimony not only to the power of the spiteful choice of words used to describe a fellow human being, but, moreover, perhaps the intent behind the words… words are a symbol of the culture of social care.”

Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan [3]

And the way we use language to frame exposes so much too. We talk of the cost of social care, not the value. Describe care in terms of a destination or a place or a service (‘going into care’, ‘residential care’, ‘home care’), not a feeling or a relationship. Use terms like ‘vulnerable people’ and ‘people with disabilities’ rather than acknowledging that people are made vulnerable and/or disabled by our attitudes and physical environments.

Language is powerful.

It’s never just words.

Alternative words

I’ve been asked lots of times about alternatives. Words to replace the words that make me go hmmm… 

There are, of course, some straightforward switches we can make, and these subtle changes can help shift mindsets.

For example, saying ‘I’m working with a person..’, not ‘I’m dealing with a case..’ ‘Dealing with’ indicates authority and control, and ‘case’ is devoid of any humanity, while ‘working with’ suggests collaboration – being alongside a fellow human being.

‘Moved to’ rather than ‘placed in’ emphasises the person’s agency, as does ‘chose not to’ instead of ‘refused’, and ‘people who draw on support’ instead of ‘service users’.

And referring to ‘support’ instead of ‘care’ or ‘services’ moves away from the realms of paternalism and service delivery and suggests a broad spectrum of connections and interventions – from listening and being present, right through to formal services.


If only.

Take, for example, the recent ‘Levelling Up the United Kingdom’ and ‘People at the Heart of Care: adult social care reform’ white papers [4]. Within their combined 436 pages are multiple references to ‘those’. “Those on the lowest incomes”. “Those furthest from the labour market”. “Those without higher education”. “Those in social housing”. “Those furthest behind”. “Those living in disadvantaged areas”. “Those with disabilities”. “Those living in more deprived areas”. “Those least able to pay”. “Those released from prison”. “Those most in need of support”. “Those who draw on care and support”. “Those who provide unpaid care to a friend or loved one”. “Those with physical and hidden disabilities”. “Those living with dementia”. “Those aged 75+”. “Those of working age with a physical or learning disability”. “Those with long-term mental health conditions”. “Those experiencing homelessness”. “Those in supported housing”. “Those living in social care settings”. “Those with lived experience”.

Two white papers on inclusion, dripping with language that separates and excludes.

How easy it would be to click ‘find and replace’ and change every ‘those’ to ‘people’. People who… People in… People with… People without…

Would that help close the divide? Maybe on paper. It might make the documents more real. More human. Talk to ‘us’, not about ‘them’. But would it change hearts and minds? Would it lead to the requisite shift in relationships and power and control?

We have to change our attitudes and our behaviours, not just our language.

It’s never just words.

Actions speak louder…

A lot of the time it isn’t about finding alternative words, it’s about much bigger changes in our knowledge of and relationships with individuals and communities, the way we share power and responsibility, how we make decisions, what we record and measure and understand, and how we design and commission and fund and evaluate.

I think often we change our language without making these much bigger changes. It makes me uncomfortable when I hear people talking about ‘strengths-based’ working or ‘person-centred’ approaches, when in reality little has changed, and we’re largely still operating as part of a dehumanised and dehumanising machine. In fact, I think the terms ‘strengths-based’ and ‘person-centred’ have become part of our jargon now, and as such they’re pretty meaningless.

Just changing our words isn’t enough, we need to change our practice too.

It’s never just words.

Too many words

“Sometimes in saying less, I can actually say more. By noticing when it’s a moment to speak, & when it’s time to leave more space. Let the words breathe, & listeners have a chance to hear the spaces in between the words. And I can hear the spaces too, & meanings can gently emerge”.

Brigid Russell [5]

Often, we talk too much. Ask too many questions. Provide too many answers. Offer sympathy or solutions. Fill the gaps. Try to fix.

We have scripts at our ‘front doors’. Assessment and review forms with set questions. Radio buttons and drop-down options with predetermined answers. Written agendas for every meeting. Policies and procedures and reports and strategies and action plans.

So many words

Too many words

Words that guide and prompt and regulate and record. But where are the gaps for curiosity and creativity and reflection and innovation? Where are the spaces for listening?

The blank piece of paper.

The pause.

Often, it’s in these spaces that genuine trust and connection builds.

By saying less, we say more.

It’s never just words

Wrong words

Sometimes we say the wrong thing.

Or we don’t say anything because we’re scared we’ll say the wrong thing. And sometimes that’s worse.

There’s a world of difference between words spoken or written with genuine empathy and curiosity and compassion, and those spoken or written with indifference or malice.

It’s never just words.

No words

Sometimes there are words we find difficult to use or aren’t ready to say.

Sometimes we have feelings we can’t put into words.

Sometimes we don’t need words.

Sometimes we don’t have words.

Sometimes silence says everything.

We communicate so much without words. A smile. A frown. An eyebrow raised. A head turned away. Eyes wide open, or looking down, or tightly closed. A giggle or a full on, infectious belly laugh. Folded arms. Open arms. A hug. A shrug. A clap. A shove. A cup of tea. A photograph. A drawing. A flower. A kiss.

Body language.

Facial expressions.

Action, and inaction.



It’s never just words.


[1] Reading through my SW files a few years ago… Careleaver123, Twitter, 23 April 2022

[2] We’re so used to euphemism… Eye’ve seen it all now, Twitter, 28 April 2022

[3] Social work, cats and rocket science, Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan, 2019

[4] Levelling Up the United Kingdom, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, 2 February 2022
People at the Heart of Care: adult social care reform white paper, Department of Health and Social Care, 1 December 2021

[5] Sometimes in saying less, I can actually say more… Brigid Russell, Twitter, 14 May 2022

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