A Rose by Any Other Name Might Ruin a Client Relationship

Words matter. Descriptions matter. Names matter.

And we, as advocates, need to pay attention to words, descriptions, and names – and take steps to use them correctly, and as desired. The problem is – sometimes we don’t know when we’re violating that axiom.

I was reminded of this a few times recently, not the least of which caused my husband some consternation.

He and I have different last names. We were older when we married, and because I was already professionally known by my maiden name (Torrey), I didn’t want to change my name. Before we married, we discussed my wish to keep my maiden name, and he was surprised I would consider doing anything but keep it! So that was that.

However, in these ensuing 10+ years, my maiden name has caused him some pause and opened his eyes. Last week, for the umpteenth time, he was called “Mr. Torrey”, and later that day when our postal mail arrived, and there were two pieces of junk mail addressed to “Mr. Warren Torrey”… Well – let’s just say that he didn’t look favorably upon any of the guilty parties. It’s not HIS name, and he takes umbrage to someone assuming it is.

Women, especially, get that.

But does he say anything? No. Does he correct the guilty party? Never. He won’t say a word.

It brings to mind the many times that we, as advocates and care managers, might trip up on something similar, not even aware, because no one SAYs anything. Even if they hate it, and find it totally disturbing, they just let it go.

We all do it. We all make assumptions we should not. And we could ruin a client relationship by using a term or name that your client or his/her caregiver doesn’t like!


  • Clients have different preferences for what they will be called. We call her “Evelyn” but she prefers “Mrs. Howard.” We call him “Mr. Johnson”, but he prefers “Fred.”
  • Then there is the tendency of some of us to tack “Honey” or “Dear” to the end of a sentence without realizing that, to many older people it seems condescending. Granted, some of us are raised to use those endearments. But not only are they not appreciated by all; sometimes those endearments are at least grating, and at most, insulting. It’s akin to an even larger tendency to talk to elderly people as if they are babies or children, another tendency we need to avoid.
  • Recently adjusted by some large, policy-type advocacy groups, then adopted by some media, is the approach to describing someone with a medical problem or disability. Is your client disabled? Or “differently-abled”? Is your client diabetic? Or is your client a “diabetes patient”? Which does he/she prefer?
  • Another recently coined term which will become more and more relevant over time, is “elder orphan” – someone who has no trusted family or loved one to make medical or financial decisions for him or her in their waning, possibly cognitively-impaired years. No spouse, sibling, child, niece or nephew to help out. (While they may have them in their life, that word “trusted” is key.) It turns out that some elderly people who are alone object to being called “orphans.” To that end, a new term – “Solos” – is being used by some. Will it catch on?
  • Finally, there is some dissension in the ranks about the choice between the titles “health advocate” and “patient advocate”. I only mention the argument here because it would be accused of missing it if I didn’t. But I’ve already made clear my opinion about it.

Now, some people roll their eyes at this discussion, asking “Who cares about being politically correct?” To which I answer… well, it’s obvious they shouldn’t work in customer service, and certainly that they don’t own their own businesses!

Of course it’s important! As is the opposite: that if we don’t get it right, it reflects negatively on us. (Extra brownie points for spelling names correctly, too!)

So the only real question remaining is – how do we know HOW to get it right? How do we know WHICH choice is preferable? How do we know Mrs. Howard prefers that to “Evelyn”, or that Mr. Johnson truly objects to the term “elder orphan?”

This is so very simple: ASK.

I do hope that answer is no surprise to anyone reading this post. The bigger surprise will be that list above of the objections take place, especially when the person who objects doesn’t speak up.

But what if we are already involved with a client and the “wrong choice of words” ship has sailed? He’s my suggestion:

Assume your client or potential client isn’t going to correct you. Assume something you say grates on them every time you say it. Assume you are eroding your relationship with them because you are using a name or terminology every day that they don’t like…..

Knowing that’s true, then open the lines of communication and talk about it. In fact, such a discussion could open the door to an even stronger, more satisfying and successful relationship between you and your client!

Evelyn – I just read an article about personal preferences and it occurs to me it might apply to us! To you and me! It said that some people have preferences for what they are called. I call you Evelyn, but would you prefer I call you Mrs. Howard? Or even Her Majesty the Queen?

What a great door that opens! You’ve given her permission to correct you, but you’ve also kept the conversation light. Follow it up with, “Are there any other terms I’m using that you have another preference? Or other ways you wish we were working together?”

Now, not only do you have a chance to correct your course, you’ve also opened the door to future corrections, cementing your relationship.

Mr Johnson – I just read an article about a term I’ve never heard before – “Elderspeak” – have you ever heard it? It says it’s possible that when I call you “Honey” you might find that to be condescending… and if it bothers you, I want to stop! It’s a habit. I’ve done it all my life. I was raised to say “Honey”. But if you prefer I stop, I’ll ask you to help me do so. What do you think?

You can even make a game out of it. Tell Mr. Johnson you’ll pay him a nickel every time you slip up. He’ll get a kick out of collecting nickels from you, but in the meantime, like with Mrs. Howard, you’ve cemented your relationship.

We have everything to gain by using preferred names and terms, and everything to lose by just guessing, or not thinking about it – then being wrong. It’s time to clarify with your clients.

By the way – we’re helping them understand this concept better, too. Read on the AdvoConnection blog: If You Don’t Tell Them, Who Will?

Do you have more examples of words, descriptions, or names we miss-use? Please share below!


2 thoughts on “A Rose by Any Other Name Might Ruin a Client Relationship”

  1. For those who object to pandering to political correctness, this isn’t about political correctness…it’s about discovering and honoring the personal preferences of individuals. Thanks for the article.

  2. Pingback: How To Make Sure Your Voice Is Heard In Healthcare | The AdvoConnection Directory of Private, Independent, Professional Patient Advocates

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