Last week I took part in the process of interviewing for a new manager for my mother’s care home. I was one of a panel of two relatives and two residents who met the candidates for an informal chat, before they went off to be grilled by the managing director and departing manager.
Down a lane on the way to the river, it’s a small, unpretentious place with room for only 26 residents. It’s clean and bright and the atmosphere is always warm and cheerful. Many of the staff are young and treat the residents with a patience and kindness and obvious affection that leaves me in awe of their vocation. In a sector not renowned for good retention, a number of the older staff have been there since before my mother arrived, six years ago.
The home scores highly with the inspectorate and is three hundred yards from my house. My brother, sister and I are constantly thankful that our mum should have ended up in what seems to be such an exceptional place. That management should even have considered involving relatives in the recruitment process marks it out still further from the run-of-the-mill. I felt privileged to have been invited to take part, although it’s many years since I last interviewed anyone for anything, and I wasn’t quite sure how things would unfold.
In the event, the thing I was least prepared for was the language. The care sector is a highly regulated one. There are mandatory procedures for everything concerning residents, from a minor bump to the treatment of a major condition, and notes must be taken and forms filled and filed at every step of the way. In many ways this a good thing, despite the administrative burden it places on the staff. But it means that their vocabulary quickly becomes infected with the jargon of process.
As a form of professional shorthand, this is not so much of a problem. But in an interview situation – where nervous people are more than likely to default to jargon – it has the effect of masking real personality, and also possibly professional competence, or lack of it. It is hard for someone to present themselves authentically when their responses sound as if they have been taken from a compliance manual. Whether the effect is to come across as stilted or glib, the result is that very little of the human being behind the words is revealed.
Over a couple of days we had to work hard to dismantle the linguistic suits of armour. I couldn’t help contrasting what we were hearing with what had filled a room a few hundred yards away, during our The Stories We Tell foundation workshop, the previous weekend. There, a group of nine people had spent two days sharing personal stories in language that resounded with all the joy and pain of human existence.
On these workshops we often quote a storyteller called Terence Gargiulo who says, ‘The shortest distance between two people is a story’. Nothing bears that out like the connections that are made on those weekends. The converse, on the evidence of the care home interviews, might be this: ‘The greatest distance between two people is jargon.’ It seems particularly wrong that this should be the case in a profession where the motivating instinct is one of basic human kindness.