As career development professionals, we find the language commonly used in employment services highly technical, exclusionary and dehumanizing. Buzzwords such as “networking,” “sales pitch,” “marketing,” “personal branding,” “selling yourself,” etc., are thrown around every day without any reflection on their impact on service providers and participants. From program development to promotions, and from resume development to the interview stage, we have borrowed much of our vocabulary from capitalist systems, and incorporated them into our ways of being, resulting in an unhealthy amount of commodification of individuals and human relations in the service sector.
Why is the vocabulary in North American employment services so deeply structured capitalist lingo? What impact does this have on users? As an example, we can consider how “networking” is taught as a mechanical and result-driven skill, where people use each other as if they were an object to achieve certain means. Or consider how an ordinary coffee chat has been commodified into something that professionals need to partake in to advance professionally. How would this work if some individuals are uncomfortable connecting with strangers from an agenda-driven perspective? And more: why can’t coffee chats just be about developing genuine, agenda-less, connections in your professional circle? Why does there need to be an outcome beyond the potential formation of a new friendship? We would argue that this business-driven language of “networking” or “developing social capital” corrupt the whole notion of genuine human connection. At an individual level, when we speak with participants to critique their resume or develop interview skills, we rely on words such as “marketable” or “quantifiable,” as if they are a product to be sold in the labour market.
When Sonam was a newcomer in Canada and looking for jobs, her employment consultant told her, “You should be able to sell yourself in the job market.” That was a cringe-worthy moment for Sonam, and the experience left an indelible mark on her psychology, which led her to collaborate on this article. This market-driven language poses serious psychological or emotional challenges to people who come from a different educational and cultural background and who are not trained in the business culture, therefore being a marker of exclusionary practices. What does this language tell us about our intrinsic worth as a human being and about our relationship with fellow humans? This is worth our time and reflection. If we choose to go ahead with this capitalist premise and agree that our lives can be commodified and that we put our labour up for sale; that we are products or a business to be sold; or that our social relations serve the purpose of using others to our own selfish satisfaction, then, as a service/culture, we are in deep trouble.
Language is powerful and lies at the core of our social psychology. Cognitive scientist and linguist Lera Boroditsky states that language is central to the experience of being human, and the languages we speak shape the way we think in profound ways. It shapes how we see the world, the way we live our lives. American philosopher Richard Rorty also established a connection between the way we speak and the way we are and act in the world. According to Rorty, the way we use language constitutes and informs our being. In sum, to change how we speak is to change who we are.
What can we do to humanize the services we provide to individuals to overcome barriers to employment and diminish the “business transaction” aspect of service delivery? We could build inclusive services that celebrate and enhance the intrinsic worth of being human. Our services should be grounded in participant-orientation, problem-posing and -solving. We do not have a solution at hand, but we argue that it all begins with a meaningful conversation from within the field.
“What can we do to humanize the services we provide to individuals to overcome barriers to employment and diminish the ‘business transaction’ aspect of service delivery?”
A few months ago, we shared a post on LinkedIn in which we shared our uneasiness in using terms directly taken from capitalism in social services. The expression of our discontent and the claim that such usage dehumanizes, commodifies, and reduces human relations and public service to mere business transactions resonated with several colleagues. Thus, here we are now, raising the issue and inviting a conversation. We hope to continue this dialogue-ripple-effect until we get heard by change makers and policy-makers. We strongly believe that starting to use more inclusive and humanistic language will empower the people and communities we serve. This will create a more inviting service environment, particularly given that we serve multi-barriered individuals who might already struggle with self-esteem issues and feel excluded.
From a linguistic perspective, a few preliminary suggestions we offer are to substitute:
- “client” for “participant”
- “Screening, assessment, intake appointment” for “collaborative meeting”
- “Intervention plan” for “collaborative engagement plan”
- “Personal branding” for “highlighting your skill and passions”
- “networking” for “making genuine friendships or connections”
There are many other usages of language that rely on capitalist ways of speaking and being, and it is our belief that such language is exclusionary, as we will now conclude.
The issue of reclaiming humanity when we live within a social and cultural context that celebrates the rat race, the hustle, the grind, competitiveness and accumulation of wealth is murky. However, if we can stand up and reclaim our usage of language towards a humanistic framework, we believe that a new world of possibilities will open. Ultimately, we believe that we would create an environment where humans are humans, and their values are not spoken of as a list of products on an online retail website. We hope we can infuse some flesh and blood in the fabric of our employment services, and that we do not end up being a mere vehicle of the global labour market to “produce market ready and employable” people. We believe we have a bigger role to empower individuals to realize their potential and not judge themselves based on a “marketable” list of qualities. We also hope that our fellow service providers and policy-makers would awaken to the simple fact that employment services have humans at the core of service, and that we must invite giants such as our corporate funders and global labour demands to be accountable, for the sake of our own future.