What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

So said William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, and who am I to argue with the Bard? But if I handed you a bouquet and told you it contained skunk cabbage, I’ll bet you wouldn’t risk a sniff, even if you saw roses among the leaves.

How you speak to, and most especially how you speak about, people is extremely important. In June I was robbed and re-discovered how much words can influence how we feel about ourselves.

Long story short: I was walking home from the public library when my laptop bag was yanked from my shoulder, knocking me to the pavement. I was bloodied and bruised, not seriously injured, but I lost my laptop, wallet, cell phone, and a few other things to the thieves.

Fortunately I was able to flag down a police car barely three minutes later. Not in time to retrieve my stolen bag, but in time to radio in the report and bandage my wounds. I climbed into the police car’s back seat and we circled the neighborhood.

The first two or three times Officer Daniel radioed in details of the robbery, he referred to me as “the victim.” For example: “I have the victim in my car now.” Yes, I felt like a victim, abrasions on knees and elbows, my 21st century tools gone. It happened so fast I still hadn’t quite comprehended the situation. But as I took inventory of my injuries and realized none were serious, my mind began to clear.

And then Officer Daniel said the most wonderful thing. “The complainant and I are in the neighborhood now, trying to locate the suspects.” I was a complainant! No longer a victim, helpless and bleeding, I had suddenly become a woman wronged and with a legitimate complaint about what had befallen me. I was a complainant, with legal standing if the criminals were ever apprehended. (Thus far they have not been.)

In October 2001, when I first volunteered with the American Red Cross on the World Trade Center disaster relief operation, an experienced volunteer explained to me that the Red Cross doesn’t use the word “victim” except occasionally in first aid classes. In this particular tragedy the victims were the 3,000 people who died in the terrorist attacks. As he explained, “There is nothing we can do for them.” Our work was helping the survivors–families of those who died, people who were injured in the attack, local residents and workers who couldn’t get to their homes or offices because of the damage. Following standard social work parlance, we usually called them “clients.” Sometimes they were “people affected by the disaster” or “those who lived or worked in the affected area.” Four years later, when I volunteered on a disaster call center following hurricane Katrina, they were simply “callers” in my report.

When I was a Call Agent I had only the slightest glimmer of what a difference that made. There were a few callers who made it obvious–people who called the Red Cross confused, worried, sometimes homeless or separated from family and friends. Then we would talk a while, and I would look up some resources in the database, and tell them where they could get assistance. Perhaps it was a Red Cross shelter for a few nights, a food bank, a local health agency… There were many needs and many resources, and much of my job as a Call Agent was to connect callers in need with the nearest appropriate resources. It was amazing how some callers changed in those few minutes on the phone–from worried and confused to determined. They now had a few referrals and the beginnings of a plan. With our help, they were going to rebuild their lives.

It wasn’t that way for everyone, of course. Some people took longer to move from victim to caller, from scared to determined. But that change was important, whenever it came. It marked the moment when a “victim” begins to take charge of his or her own recovery. Yes, there are resources and people who can help. But does one approach them helplessly, wanting to be coddled and cared for, or confidently, with a direct request for help and the confidence to do whatever it takes to find a solution?

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