Community voices: why do we choose the words we use?

In his latest blog, our founder Alex writes about the importance of language that reflects community – and why the Cares family have a particular way of talking...


At South London Cares, we're always thinking about how we talk. It's an important part of how we operate – so it permeates the whole organisation, from our mission statement to our internal communications.

Take "community network", for example – that language is how we self-identify. We're conscious that the term applies two words that essentially mean the same thing. But those two words matter to us because they encapsulate who we are and what we do.

"Network" is a pretty modern phrase, and it's one that many young professionals – one half of our target demographic – understand. From social media to small but overlapping social circles, the world has never been more "connected".

Similarly, "community" is often how older people define not just where they are but who they are too. The word is about solidarity, togetherness, people and place. Bringing those two words – community and network – together is an expression of what the Cares family tries to achieve: connecting young professionals with their older neighbours in a rapidly changing city.

Our focus on language extends into other areas of how we work too. Increasingly, we talk about the environment in which people live and how big business, big government and even some big charities can suffocate, stifle and squeeze individualism and make people feel more left behind than ever.

For instance, when did the term "social" come to mean "a service of government" (social services, social housing, social care, social security)? The word "social" means people being with people in a relational way: connecting on a human level, spending time with one another, and not just saving it.

Within that "social" sector we've somehow developed a language that is in many ways perpetuating isolation, rather than solving it. It's a top-down vocabulary to which many ordinary people can't relate. Like the system from which it comes, it's clunky, remote and sometimes impersonal.

That's why the Cares family, as a small network of charities seeking to tackle isolation in our communities, has a banned list of words which we never use. That list includes "services", "residents", "clients", "befriend" and "beneficiaries" – transactional words which suggest no mutuality or civic interaction. Instead, we use words like "neighbours", "activities", "visible", "partnership", "interaction", "friendship" – which each speak to our values of connecting local people, personality and places for the benefit of everyone.

In this more globalised, more digitised, more gentrified, more expensive, more anonymous city – think self-service checkouts, card-readers replacing greetings with bus drivers, and automation making a maze of a simple phone call – people can lose something of themselves and ultimately become isolated and withdrawn. It's not just older people. Younger people in their twenties and thirties are the second and third most lonely groups in the country. We can do something about that.

So although language is necessarily constraining, we don't need to default to the very most limiting vocabulary which can leave people feeling even more remote. As ever, starting with the community – and the language people themselves use – is not just important, it's vital.


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Alex Smith

Posted by Alex Smith on Thursday 7th April 2016

Alex is SLC's founder and CEO.