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Lingo in the social & charity work sector

Brianne Turk

Have you ever heard human services workers talk to each other? Did it sound like they were speaking a foreign language? We’re not surprised. The social work and charity work sectors - like every sector - has its own unique lingo, and much of the time it sounds like a load of academic, abbreviated hoo-haa.

A SW’er might consult the DSM-5 before using EBP to work with someone with MH concerns, while at the same time offer assistance with their DV situation.

Did you catch that?

Yeah we didn’t either.

Likewise, a NPO might want to make registered charity status by complying with ACNC’s regulations (having charitable purposes and no disqualifying purposes) before securing support from CVP’s and benefactors.


Sector lingo

Sector lingo is taught at university, and for good reason. It says ‘we all work in this realm’, ‘we’re in it together’, forming a bond between colleagues and organisations. It’s an insider’s code that allows workers to communicate quickly and accurately with each other. Where accountability and welfare are concerned, it’s crucial to have a set of standard terms that professionals across the board understand and adhere to.

This language is also important when writing funding submissions, reports for superiors and policies for governing bodies. It meets necessary criteria and demonstrates knowledge and professional integrity. In these instances, it’s appropriate to refer to ‘a person-centred approach’, ‘capacity-building’, ‘strengths-based interventions’ and ‘self-determination’.

But what about when you chat to clients?

Plain language

In a sector focused on promoting and advocating for human rights, improving society, and providing assistance to people in need, using academic terms ostracises the very people the sector aims to reach. It creates a barrier between the worker and the everyday person they are working with, often leaving the person feeling confused or stupid.

Take the word ‘intervention’ for example. Sounds pretty dramatic, right? Perhaps it even has a negative connotation, as if you’re going to intervene in someone’s life? What a foolproof way to invoke fear and resistance in a client! Even the word ‘client’ is a bit off-putting.

A better approach is to use simple, everyday language that puts people (clients) on an equal footing, without the power-play of academic terms and abbreviations. There’s a big difference between the language used between third sector professionals, and the language that benefits the community members you’ll work with.

We’re not saying not to learn your sector jargon. We repeat: it has its purpose. You don’t want to leave yourself open to misconduct if you’re misinterpreting terms you should be familiar with. And besides, getting on top of buzzwords and abbreviations will save you from becoming red-faced in meetings! But when it comes to working alongside everyday people (clients), it’s time to get real.

So here’s a few alternatives to some common terms and phrases. Which would you prefer?

  • I’ll schedule a meeting - Let’s arrange a chat.
  • Build rapport - Get to know you.
  • Screening and assessment - Gather some information from you to find out where you’re at, what you’re looking for and how we can assist.
  • Advocating - Standing up for you and chatting to someone on your behalf.
  • Framework/Model/Theory - The work we do is based on research, we’re not just making it up on the spot.
  • Self-determined - You make the decisions about your own life, not us.
  • Empowerment - Assisting you to be able to have control over your life so you can reach your goals.
  • Goal-oriented approach - We work with you towards your goals.

What other lingo can you reconsider?

The do’s and don’ts 

The way language is used changes with time, and preferences also change between subgroups and organisations, so don’t be afraid to ask people what terms they’d prefer you to use.

Most importantly, never underestimate the power of your language. People unconsciously internalise words, and then form belief systems based on these. This is one of the reasons why bullying can have such a devastating effect. It’s your duty as a social worker or charity worker to use language in a way that empowers the people you work with, and to set an example for how the rest of society should speak to fellow community members.

There are a few golden rules to remember when you’re working in this field, so take note of the following:

  1. Each organisation refers to the people they work with using different terms. Examples include clients, consumers, people, participants, individuals and customers. Be consistent with your organisation.  
  2. Most organisations prefer you to use language that promotes the capacity of their clients. For example, you might say that you are working with someone or alongside someone, rather than doing something for them. After all, if an individual has shown up to see a worker they are not passive in the situation. Even referring to people as clients or my client can be disempowering. We’ve used this term in our article as it is widely understood by non-professionals, however we prefer the term person/people.     
  3. When speaking about someone with a disability, there is a general expectation to refer to the person first, rather than using their disability as their identifying factor. For example, rather than referring to disabled people, you could refer to people with a disability. Rather than referring to that Down-syndrome girl Sally, you would say Sally who has Down-syndrome. Be mindful that there are also some people who don’t like to be referred to as having a disability at all, either because they do not view their capacity as disabling, or because they prefer t