Talk so people can understand you

Sitting in with other clinicians or the psychiatrists at work, I’m surprised at some of the phrasings they use. Please don’t ask someone about “suicidal ideation” — “thoughts about killing yourself” will make more sense. And no one (at least in our patient population) describes themselves as “irritable.” But “aggravation,” that resonates. “Do you get aggravated easily?” will bring a hearty “Yes!” from clients who scratched their heads when you asked about irritability.*

Because social work occupies a weird non-medical niche in a medical world and we have a chip on our shoulders about the fact that we do real clinical work, our notes have to be more formal than the doctors’ notes. Specifically, social workers tend to refer to themselves as “this writer”, which drives me bananas. As in, “This writer attempted to meet with client, who was unavailable due to being in the shower.” I’m not sure why an awkward writing style proves our professionalism.

I’m also disturbed by officialese on signs that people really need to understand. Take this one I saw recently:


“No questions asked but information may be given” — what does that mean? Who is giving information about whom? Presumably they mean “We will not ask you questions, but you can give us information if you want to.” But if I’m a nervous teenaged parent, that “information may be given” might scare me off.

I’d like all emergency signs to be written in simple English, without the passive voice, suitable for reading by people with limited literacy or English skills.

*Some questions are just hard to get across regardless of how you phrase them. The question about anhedonia — have you lost interest in things you used to enjoy? — usually prompts my clients at the jail to answer, “Yes, my freedom!” My favorite answer was a thoughtful, “I used to enjoy watching soccer, but since I moved to this country, I don’t enjoy it anymore. The soccer here is just terrible.”


2 thoughts on “Talk so people can understand you

  1. Pingback: Serious (Stucky) Advice | Gruntled & Hinged


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