Language barriers

Can changing the way we talk change the way we think?

At Mayday, we’ve always seen language as an expression of power and beliefs. It’s a window into how people and organisations think, and it’s a way of passing on their belief systems to new people as they join the organisation. So challenging and changing language can be a way into a conversation which isn’t just about the way we talk but the way we act. I was reminded of this after a conversation with Jane Devine of Foursquare, a progressive Edinburgh charity supporting people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, who wrote this piece on jargon for the Scotsman. I am a fan of Bryony Shannon’s Words that Make Me Go Hmmm… blog on language in social care.

There are dangers in language wars though. Challenging words only gets you so far, particularly if you do the easy bit of changing the words without the hard part of changing how we act. I wrote about the language of ‘customers’ and ‘customer service’ in public services, in my book, to argue that changing the language used within organisations and systems can often be a substitute for changing behaviour and beliefs, with the new softer-sounding language adding a coating of irony to unyielding bureaucracies:

Many councils describe the people who live in their local area not as citizens, but as customers. They operate ‘customer service’ centres. Importing customer service culture from the private sector service industries was one way in which the Blair government attempted to ‘modernise’ services which had previously called people ‘service users’.

Being a ‘customer’ (or ‘client’ in some services) sounds better than being a ‘service user’, but it is worth thinking about exactly what that status implies. Customers buy their way into a contract with an organisation that wants their money. But most of us approach public services either with no money, because the service does not charge, or having proved our relative poverty to pass a means test. People choosing care and support services, like care homes, often do so in a crisis, encountering a limited range of confusing choices, none of which may feel like they match the life they imagined themselves living. These ‘customers’ find they have little power even when spending a great deal of their own money, but those customers who are spending very limited amounts of the state’s money, have fewer choices and less power. They may be called customers, but feel like supplicants.

A customer is someone who has some rights, but few responsibilities. As a customer of a shop I do not control what the shop sells. If it is a local corner shop I may be friendly with the owner and able to make suggestions, but not if it is a large supermarket. Customers not only lack the power to design anything; it is not their responsibility to do so. Setting aside the power dynamics at play, when we choose or buy long-term support, we are seeking not just a service, but a relationship with the person or people who will provide that support. Ultimately, we cannot be customers of relationships.

It is better to be a citizen than a customer.

Here at Mayday we’re on a Plain English mission. We remain convinced that language is vital, but we want to avoid as far as possible replacing one set of jargon with another, because jargon always confers power on those who can speak it over those who can’t.

The test for me is always this: what makes sense to the people we wish to support? What language do they understand and feel confident using? Those words will be ones which people have the power to use, not the other way round.

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