"Friend" as a word of Power: Why "Semantics" has gotten a bad rap

“Friend” as a word of Power: Why “Semantics” has gotten a bad rap

In my last post I finished by briefly talking about some of the past work I’ve done in the world of social work and mentioning how structures that are made to support struggling people can actually be places that further alienate them – often simply because of the language that is used.

Semantics is the study of meaning. It has gotten a bad rap as the skill of splitting hairs needlessly and I recognize that that’s how it generally is used in day to day conversation. Instead of being something negative I think Semantics is the idea that there can be consequences for the words we choose to use (and choose not to use), and most folks reading this I think would agree. Most of us agree that certain words that demean others are often better not used. But it’s not just derogatory terms that have power and I’d like us to rethink how we choose what words to use and why.

Since graduating from college I’ve spent a lot of time working in a variety of direct care social service positions and time and again I’ve been told about how important it is for me to remember that I’m “staff” or “provider” and they are the “client” or “customer” or…whatever. The language chosen is of a kind that always sets up a power dynamic and that relationship never shifts; I will always be the one giving the goods or services and you (by all means, please insert yourself in this situation, imagine how this feels for a moment) are always the one to receive them. There is, as we use this kind of language and set up these kinds of structures, no possibility for equity or reciprocation. Many of these terms even hammer home the economic relationship: someone is paying me to be there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m getting paid to work at HOMEpdx – there have been moments when this feels like the greatest con ever because I’m getting paid to do things I’ve done for free in the past – but the language we use should not further isolate our brothers and sisters who need help. In the past as a staff at these various jobs I have looked around and asked “If I am not allowed to be this person’s friend who will be? If I can’t and my coworkers can’t, if their family never visits and they don’t (or can’t) get out much…then who?”
Even the term “guest” – which in my mind soars well above any of the other words used – comes with the binary of “host”. Instead, at HOMEpdx we strive to make friends. Not “friends”, just another jargon term used at another job (though some days it can devolve into that if I’m not careful), but real friends. A friend will hug you after a bad break-up, is happy to give you a ride to a job interview if you need it and will take you to lunch just for the hell of it sometimes.

For those of us who come out of a tradition that’s centered around following Jesus we should pay special attention to the fact that he rejects this kind of linguistic division of people as well, and for very similar reasons:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:12-15 emphasis mine).

Our friends often don’t have much, and the little we are able to give them doesn’t include their dignity or self-worth; those things they have to pick up or hold on to themselves. What we can do is make sure that in at least one interaction they have this week – the interaction they have with me, or with with you – that the language we use not only doesn’t strip them of their dignity but celebrates them as persons of value.

Photo Credit: here