For National Social Work Month we had a celebration at department meeting yesterday. There was free food, so that was good. We had a speaker, a professor from the MSW program at UNH, who gave a solid 15-20 minutes on the history of Social Work degree programs in New England. This included a calling out of what schools were represented and how many years in service people had.* There was this year’s proclamation from the White House, extending through many whereases telling us what good things they have noticed us doing (including “overcoming earthquakes” in the disaster relief section, which sounded a little inflated), up to a final therefore which thanks us. We played a mildly competitive game involving social work terms. There was a beribboned bag for each of us with a colorful “Social Workers Are Awesome” card on the outside and small presents inside. One of the interns was master of ceremonies, and all the interns had been dragooned into service for the preparation.
You will be shocked to know that I did not find this fascinating. However, I have several outs when stuck in such situations, one of which is to sit back and examine the whole affair as an anthropologist or a man from Mars might, to see what might be understood about us. All groups with repeat meetings have rituals, and the rituals are declarations of what is significant. When we go to town meeting, the Cub Scouts march out flags which we salute; the high school chorus sings; the moderator introduces people who make short, clichéd speeches before we get down to business. The choices of which clichés are brought out are often a clue as to what will follow.
To be candid, my first daydream was of which tables would be fun if you got a couple of drinks into everyone. I had cynically predicted that the number would be low, but it turned out to be fully half: three of the six tables were having bright conversation and laughter. That’s off topic on the subject of rituals, but I wanted to have full disclosure. At gatherings where I can bring a notepad one of my spacing-out timekillers is to make geographic lists, such as how many European rivers I can name. Good times.
Rituals. So these are the rituals of meaning for social workers: acknowledgement from government, or at least official bodies; food, encouraging clichés, and small presents, which I think is standard in all female-dominated professions even though not all females like them; reassurance that the expensive professional training and licensure are indeed the indicators of quality; reminiscing about agency histories and previous hard budget times, to validate that we have lived the true experience and are all sisters; the highlighting of in-group jargon to show that we are knowledgeable and set apart. It’s always hard to find volunteers to run these things, so the committee assignment is a rotating duty, yet the rituals are similar each time. Once every few years a committee will take it into their heads to go all out with the decorations, food, ceremonies, and presents but go away hurt because the rest of us did not appreciate the effort. Or, there might be icebreaker-style games where we find out interesting things about each other in an attempt at esprit-de-corps. Yet those last two tend to be general group rituals, not very specific to social workers.
*I am a significant outlier on both counts.