Lucy Dunstan - Deputy Chief Executive Officer

18th November 2020

Label - A classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.
Definition from Oxford Languages

I take no issue with the use of acronyms when it comes to describing more general words, objects and structures. However, I do take issue with it when used in a way to describe groups of people. It’s lazy, has no claim or ownership from the group it refers to and more significantly the use of language in this way perceives the group as ‘different’ and sometimes dehumanises their existence, seeing them as ‘other’.

The erosion and power of words is nothing new. Lazy humans always take linguistic shortcuts, but the language we use can also be a stark reflection of our thinking and the values that we uphold as individuals.

Recognise these lazy labels? SEND, PMLD, BAME, SERVICE USERS……. the list is endless.

I have worked with people in a range of guises for many years. These people range from executives and politicians in positions of power to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities who find themselves stripped of their most basic human rights. I have little concern for where you’re from, what you do and what title you have been honoured. You are no more superior than the next person and no less superior than the last. What I have always prided myself on is the ability to be ‘chameleon like’, able to interact with people from all walks of life, interested in whatever page or chapters of their story they choose to share with me. Life has definitely taught me that the effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is.

Through my simple lens, people are just people and in the rare moments when I am truly captivated by individuals it is not because of who they are, what they do or the platform that privilege has afforded them. On the contrary, it’s the stories of the people society has labelled in our communities who are often unknown and unheard overcoming the odds that have been sewn for them through a fabric of social injustice. It is these people, seldom associated with power and honour that get my heart pounding and my eyes to widen. Like Niccolo Machiavelli said “It is not titles that honour men, but men that honour titles."

In Changing Our Lives, we strive to rewrite ‘social norms’ and this includes the labels that society has stitched into its fabric to describe groups of people that have been persecuted and oppressed, both historically and today.

Social norms are the unwritten rules of behaviour that are considered acceptable in a group or society. Norms function to provide order and predictability in society. On the whole, people want approval, they want to belong, and those who do not follow the norms will suffer disapproval or may even be outcast from the group. This is how we keep society functioning, not just with direct rules but also expectations. When people know what is expected of them they tend to comply. While some people seek to be different, most just want to be part of the group. Norms can change according to the environment, situation, and culture in which they are found, and people's behaviour will also change accordingly. Social norms may also change or be modified over time.

Social norms within Changing Our Lives are driven by our unapologetic ‘ordinary life' approach, and the language that reinforces it. An approach that suffers disapproval in many of the environments that we find ourselves working. We don’t accept the language society uses to separate people, nor do we speak in a ‘language’ that excludes the people we are working alongside.

Have you ever played Bullshit Bingo? I have, but never as an organised game. More a way of keeping myself amused and occupied in some of the meetings that I have been unfortunate to attend over the years, whilst scrutinising the power imbalance at play.

Bullshit Bingo, or Buzzword Bingo as it’s more widely referred to, is generally played in situations where audience members feel that the speaker is relying too heavily on buzzwords or jargon, rather than providing relevant details or clarity. This jargon differs from one sector to another, but what is consistent is that business meetings are often viewed as a good opportunity for Bullshit Bingo, as the language used within these meetings often includes predictable references to obscure organisational and systematic concepts, which are perfect for use in the creation of jargonistic bingo cards!

In Changing Our Lives, the philosophy and principles of coproduction underpin our entire approach. Coproduction is about people working together as equal and reciprocal partners, having the skills and knowledge to create opportunities and solve problems. This means that we sit and work alongside ‘labelled’ people in both operational and strategic meetings, where they are often faced with the intimidating job of questioning and interpreting this unfamiliar language, reinforcing the power imbalance that I mentioned earlier.

In my experience, sometimes the people using this language are so used to it that they no longer remember the meaning (if they ever did). Lazy linguistics and excelling at Bullshit Bingo ensures their place as a part of a 'club'. It’s a place where only they and other people that use the same language ‘belong’; a club’s exclusivity that they’d rather preserve, in spite of their invitations.

In the words of Catherine Tate/Nan “Fucking liberty.”

When people feel alienated in conversation they move to the periphery. Coded phrases and acronyms simply widen the distance between the people using this language and the people that this language has been applied. It is a common language that enables people to connect and be active citizens and this includes being willing to listen. Too often we hear, but seldom do we listen!