By: Kristen Marie (Kryss) Shane, MSW, LMSW
“We share the sky, but we’re a world apart.” –Astoria Boulevard
Having been at this new post-MSW job for almost a year now, I’m continually struck by the differences I encounter here. In an agency where every client is within a certain age and socioeconomic status range, living within a 5-minute walk and where the staff don’t live too far from our site, I began this position without realizing just how different people here would be. As my time here has lengthened, I’ve realized that it isn’t about people here, it’s about people in general. How does a person adjust and adapt? Here are some places to start.
1. There is a difference between Dominican Spanish and Puerto Rican Spanish.
I mean this both literally and figuratively. In other words, just because a group of people fall into one category (Spanish-speaking, for example), it doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Learn the differences. Ask questions and be genuinely interested in the answers. Also, although Google Translate is a great tool, always check with someone fluent before posting signs or flyers...otherwise, you risk using archaic words!
2. Perception counts for more than reality sometimes.
Ask five people what it means to be “broke” and you’ll get five very different answers. For some, it means not being able to afford a weekly mani/pedi. For others, it means not being able to feed one’s children for a day or more. Obviously, these definitions are very far apart. My personal definition is much closer to the latter than the former, but for the client, that’s almost inconsequential. If what the client came to talk about is how s/he feels about being broke, regardless of how you define the term, find a way to accept his/her definition during his/her session.
3. Heartbreak is universal.
Whether it’s a teen couple who split after 12 days or a marriage ending after 12 years, when your client is going through it, the length of time isn’t important. Much as was said in #2, don’t let yourself get caught up judging someone else’s definitions. Focus on how they’re feeling based on how they define the words.
4. Age is just a number.
My clients play Wii bowling (and often beat me in games), they work out at the local pool, they complete Sudoku puzzles while they eat breakfast, they shop, they have lunch dates, and sometimes tempers flare when someone’s cell phone rings during a movie. I work with senior citizens. When I say that, most assume it means that I work with “old people,” that someone’s age tells you something about who they are. Granted, my clients know more about Social Security and hip replacements than your average teen, but they’re no stereotypical prune-eating invalids! These people have hearts, minds, stories, history, and as full a personality as anyone. Assuming that a group of people are any which way prevents them from being who they truly are, it builds a wall between you and your clients, and it causes you to miss out on getting to know the amazing traits that come with the wisdom that each person carries. By the way, have I mentioned that the star bowler in our Wii bowling league just turned 94?
5. I don’t know.
Three words that, for me, have sometimes felt terrifying to speak. I’m the one with the degrees; I should know. I’m the one with the license; I should know. I’m the one with the business cards or the job title or the responsibilities or the private office or the this or the that, and I should know...right? Nope. One of the toughest things for me to realize is that there’s a lot of power in being able to admit to not knowing. Not only does admitting it mean that you will soon know, but you’re showing a willingness to allow others to feel powerful as they teach you. When you are the big boss, it’s pretty cool for an intern or a client or someone else who feels a power differential to be given the chance to guide you, if only for the minute of explanation. When the encounter ends, you walk away with another piece of knowledge, and your colleague walks away feeling valued. Who knew three words could hold so much power, right?!
In the end, I’m learning that the best way to learn about people’s differences is to remember what is fairly universal—all people want to be treated with respect and dignity, and people would far prefer you to ask than to assume. How wonderful it is to get to learn all about what makes a client unique when you already know that you have the desire for peace and love in common!
Kristen Marie (Kryss) Shane, MSW, LMSW, earned her BS at The Ohio State University and her MSW at Barry University. She is currently working with the elder population as the program director at HANAC’s Ravenswood NORC in Astoria, NY. She is also on staff at www.socialworkchat.org and continues to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community on local and national levels.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Fall 2011, Vol. 18, No. 4, page 31.