07 February, 2012

This is just something I've noticed in a few environments. I work in a nursing home right now but I think it also applies to staff who work with people with DDs*. The idea is that if a "client" or other euphemism is rude to you, you can be rude back to them.

Sarah: I don't like you!
Aide: Well, I don't like you either. (turning to other person) Look how obnoxious Sarah is!

Okay, let's take a minute because this is really weird! First of all, the experience of having someone who openly dislikes you come into the place where you live and take care of your personal care stuff has got to be depressing. I can't help but think it just might make someone LESS LIKABLE. It also sounds scary, no matter how principled the aide is about not letting their opinions affect their work.

My personal feelings aside though, this just has nothing in common with how service people act in, like, every other type of job. If you were cashiering and a guy was yelling at you for ringing things up slowly, you would apologize. If you were cutting someone's hair and they started bitching, you would go along with it. It doesn't matter that they're being rude, YOU WORK FOR THEM.

I guess some people would say this is because unlike long-term euphemisms, this kind of customer can take their money away from you at any time. But I don't really think this is the whole thing. Bus drivers are pretty nice and I'm not exactly going to go buy a car if they piss me off. When I worked at my college dining hall I would have gotten in trouble if I'd been rude to someone who was eating there, but they were going to eat there anyway.

Really I think the whole business is more simple. When you are being paid to do things for other people, you put yourself out, because you are working. If you did whatever you felt like it wouldn't be a job. It would be doing something nice for someone because you wanted to.

Probably a lot of people in service jobs like doing nice things for people, and that's part of the reason they chose the job they did. But I think some people who do support work never really separate doing their job from doing something for someone else in real life. They don't do bad work--they really care, and they have good relationships with the long-term euphemisms who meet them halfway. But if someone doesn't meet them halfway, no professional code snaps into place, no "the customer is always right"--there is just this person you have to take care of, just like if you had to take care of your grandma and she was mean. But it's not the same thing! You work for them!

I just think this is creepy because I would be creeped out if I was the long-term euphemism everyone hated and kind of glared at while putting my clothes on and giving me a shower. But it's also just not professional. Sometimes I think it happens because, without really acknowledging it, we recognize that this class of clients can do less to punish us if we piss them off. I don't think this is as consciously selfish as I'm making it sound, but that's one of the things that makes it scary.

*(Actually I think there's an extra thing when it comes to DDs, because staff sometimes have a feeling even if they're working with an adult they are supposed to be shaping/improving the person's behavior in the way they would with a kid. So it's not even that they're being rude in response to rudeness, it's that they actually think doing their job well includes telling a person to say please or think about how the things they ask for affect their staff person.)


  1. Sometimes the "it's a job" approach actually can make people harder to deal with, too. If you're dealing with a counselor institution worker who wants to "help people" and expects to deal with people who have emotional or other issues, a lot of time they will make way more effort to relate to you as a person. Whereas the nurse who sees himself as "doing a job" in the same sense as a plumber will be resentful of someone getting mad at them. A plumber would get annoyed if you kept telling them you disliked them, especially they were going to have to keep working for or around you for a while.

    Part of what this means though as that nurses often don't see themselves as "service workers" as much as they see themselves as "maintenance workers." They're just there to keep people's bodies running, same as a pipe or lighting fixture. And you don't expect to deal with a pipe getting mad at you.

    Then we're just down to who gets to be a real person. People in nursing homes, not so much.

  2. I just love your use of the term "euphemism" in this piece. I'm probably going to steal it.

  3. This post confused me.

    When you say "The idea is that if a "client" or other euphemism is rude to you, you can be rude back to them," do you mean that institutionally, or professionally, the organization permits carers to respond reciprocally? Or are you saying. . . carers are DOING it, and it's not professional? Because it's NOT professional, for sure.

    I worked in a nursing home for a few years when I was in high school, I know I'd have lost my job if I'd have been rude to one of the residents, even in response to rudeness. I get that it happens. People get mad, or have their feelings hurt and respond poorly. . . but I think that's pretty ubiquitous at work or in our personal lives. The more professional/polite you are, the less you allow someone else's attitude to impact your own.

    Yeah, if I was a carer it would be pretty creepy to know that I was caring for someone who despised me. . . but I think it would be substantially MORE creepy to be a resident under the day-to-day care of someone I despised.

  4. "Yeah, if I was a carer it would be pretty creepy to know that I was caring for someone who despised me. . . but I think it would be substantially MORE creepy to be a resident under the day-to-day care of someone I despised."

    This is what Amanda Forest Vivian meant.

    (I know speaking for someone else is kind of crappy but I would be somewhat alarmed to have that misattributed to me.)

  5. A lot of it really does have to do with lack of respect. Many care workers really feel that the people they work with are there to be controlled, not served.

    Another thing though may be that both the professional and client are stuck. I have worked in retail and even though we are trained to be polite to difficult clients, persistently difficult clients usually do eventually get told to leave by the management. Many nursing homes and other such places aren't able to discharge residents for being difficult, which is probably a good thing most of the time, but it can have the effect of keeping both the resident and the workers in a hostile situation.

  6. Pancho is right. Due to lack of blogging I've obviously lost all ability to communicate what I think and I should probably get on that. I meant that I've noticed this seems to be something that people think is okay even when they're otherwise pretty dedicated to their job.

    Pancho also has a good point about the other thing (service vs. maintenance). I guess I think support work is a weird combination of those two things and I'm wary of falling too far in either direction.

    My friend once told me that staff should be like machines. This was towards the beginning of my first staff job and I feel really lucky that I was exposed to that idea because it's affected me a lot, but I don't agree with it 100%. I guess some people really would not want to have any degree of friendliness or closeness with someone who helps with ADLs, because it makes them feel embarrassed or because it makes them feel like getting support is dependent on pleasing the other person as a friend. But there is also something alienating about someone coming in, touching you, moving you, and doing personal things without giving you any kind of acknowledgment.

    And there are plenty of people (though definitely not all) who seem to want to form friendships with their staff and not see them just as a worker.

    Like, I think there should be some caring and desire to help and be friendly, BUT your work can't be totally based on that stuff, because you should still be able to work well for someone who isn't friendly, doesn't thank you for your help, or even is mean to you. You shouldn't require friendliness or gratefulness to do your job.

    I don't know if this makes sense but I guess I feel like support work ideally should have multiple layers, where the bottom layer is you're doing a maintenance job (working for the euphemism though, they are not the pipes), the next layer is being a positive/friendly person in their life, and the next layer is having a more close relationship if they want it, while still keeping the more basic layers in place.

  7. While I agree with that, but I also think there is something more basic going on since relating to someone as a person doesn't necessarily mean trying to be friends with them. I think it's good if you can be friends with someone you work for within the context of working for them, but even if you don't try to be friends with someone that is not the same as treating them like plumbing.

    At the place I was at, there was one counselor who was disliked by many of the "patients". But they never had problems with her like they did with a lot of the nurses and I never saw anyone getting mad at her or criticizing her to her face. They honestly didn't criticize her all that much when she wasn't there.

    What was actually going on was that (a) she was a woman meaning she had more stringent standards set for how to be friendly and (b) she wasn't giving off what Amanda Baggs describes as "I am nice" signals. (I liked her more because of it though because I felt like b was something we had in common)

    Back then I would have described it as that she was nice to us, but she forgot to tell us that she was being nice so a lot of people didn't notice. People didn't necessarily want to be friends with her, although they weren't mean to her. She didn't treat us, even people who disliked her, like we were primarily a task to be taken care of and this was quite noticeable. Meanwhile, someone can be "nice" while still treating you that way.

    Some people try to be friends with everyone and are very effusive and I guess for them there might not be a difference between that and treating someone like a person. Not everyone is like that, though, and at the same time people being held in institutions are subject to the same biases as the rest of society.