Even when phoning a helpline called ‘Victim Support’, identity matters, writes Dr Emma Tennent.

“I hate that f…ing word.”

Some people who experience crime or trauma, like the woman quoted above, reject the label “victim” and choose alternatives like “survivor”.

There are complex debates about labelling and identity when it comes to victimhood. The interesting thing is that this quote comes from a real-life call to a Victim Support helpline.

What does it mean to reject a victim identity while seeking help from a service called Victim Support? My research examines the puzzle of identity and its connections to seeking help. In a recent paper, I tracked how callers identified themselves in 396 real-life calls to the 0800 Victim helpline.

Seeking help can be difficult. Research suggests identity is one barrier to doing that. Being a victim is a stigmatised identity, so people may minimise their experiences to reject seeing themselves in this way. Although this can have some psychological benefits in the short-term, it can prevent people from accessing the support that is important for long-term recovery.

We know a lot from surveys and interview studies about how hard it is to ask for help. We also know from lab-based studies that help involves complicated social dynamics. But we know surprisingly little about what happens when people seek help in everyday life. My work focuses on help-seeking “in the wild” to better understand how it really happens.

Victim Support runs the 0800 Victim helpline and provides free emotional support and practical advice to victims of crime and trauma.

There’s an implication in the name “Victim Support” that people need to be victims to get support. My research focuses on how callers manage these tensions when seeking help.

I used a method called conversation analysis to discover communication patterns. The calls were anonymised to protect the confidentiality of callers, so identifying information wasn’t included in the research.

Instead, my focus was on what people said and did as they interacted over the phone. This includes the words that were spoken, tone of voice, how fast people were speaking, moments of silence and so on. All these little details are important because they reveal how people asked for help and where their identity came into the picture.

While questions of identity might seem esoteric and metaphysical, my research shows their real-life relevance.

I wanted to know how callers identified themselves and when this happened in relation to asking for help.

I found callers very rarely used the word “victim” explicitly. Some callers contacting the service for the first time did label themselves victims. This was an important way they could show they were eligible for the support on offer, by establishing a victim identity before asking for help.

However, most of the time callers let the call-taker infer they were victims without saying so directly. Callers could do this by describing their experiences, displaying emotion, or telling a story of how they came to call.

Although these practices may seem “indirect”, they offer important ways for callers to present their identities on their own terms. These longer turns of talk also display callers’ understanding of what details are important to include when asking for help.

Because of the link between identity and help in this setting, simply calling 0800 Victim and asking for help can be enough for call-takers to “fill in the blanks” and understand the caller as a victim. Yet some callers pushed back on this assumption, by rejecting the victim label explicitly or by designing their talk as a general inquiry rather than a personal matter.

These calls highlight that being understood as a victim is not an automatic process. Instead, it is through the conversational dynamic that callers and call-takers build up a picture of who they are to each other.

Dr Petrina Hargrave of Victim Support tells me many of the 40,000-plus clients they support each year feel strongly about either identifying as a “victim” or a “survivor”.

She says that early on in the process it can help clients to recognise they are victims in the eyes of the law. But later, as clients feel more empowered, they see a lot of people, especially those affected by family or sexual violence, identifying instead as survivors.

Victim Support uses our research to improve its knowledge of potential barriers to seeking help. While questions of identity might seem esoteric and metaphysical, my research shows their real-life relevance. How callers identified themselves could be the difference between getting access to help or being directed elsewhere.

Identity matters. Many support services are designed for a certain kind of person and people seeking help first need to present themselves as eligible before they can access the support on offer. For the callers in my data, identity work is not armchair psychology, but a real-world matter of getting help in a time of need.

I’m continuing this research through my ongoing collaboration with Victim Support as well as exploring help-seeking in different contexts, like calling for an ambulance.

Figuring out communication patterns also holds the potential for understanding where interactions can veer off track and different ways call-takers can better support those seeking help in difficult circumstances.

Dr Emma Tennent is a lecturer in communication in Te Kura Tānga Kōrero Ingarihi, Kiriata, Whakaari, Pāpāho, Tāhuhu Kōrero Toi — School of English, Film, Theatre, Media and Communications, and Art...

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