06 February, 2020
Respect, empathy, and an open mind. That’s the message I closed with when I recently gave a talk about inclusive language. For some people, inclusive language is a loaded term that signifies thought police, political correctness, and ‘snowflakes’ getting worked up over nothing. But what is inclusive language really about? Words are powerful and how we use them is important. The language we use can be hurtful, make people feel unwelcome, and damage relationships. On the other hand, it can make us approachable, generate kindness, and create inclusive environments. That last one is important because we know that work cultures where everyone feels valued and included are more productive and have better outcomes.
Ideally, thinking about and using inclusive language shouldn’t be due to outside pressures, but simply because we care about the impact of our words. It is a conscious effort to communicate in ways that express values we believe in. This means there isn’t a list of right and wrong words out there you can memorise, using inclusive language has to be a continual learning process. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you along.
Fear of getting your words wrong and offending someone or being judged can make you feel like you shouldn’t say anything at all. Or once you start becoming aware of issues, the number of things you feel you need to take into account can seem overwhelming. It’s easy to feel that it’s impossible to get it right so why even try, but that attitude won’t make anything better. Acknowledge you will probably make mistakes but don’t let that stop you trying.
The recent events surrounding Alastair Stewart’s resignation highlight how important context is. It might seem against principles of equality and fairness, why should Stewart tweeting the same quote be fine when it’s to a white person but not a black person? We exist in a society that unfortunately has a history of treating people differently based on ethnicity, and even more unfortunately these biases still exist and play out in practice. As a result, words or phrases have different impacts on different groups. This isn’t isolated to ethnicity: for example, calling a woman bossy has different implications than describing a man that way so be aware of the context of words.
We don’t know what we don’t know, but ignorance is no excuse. Once you decide it’s important to you to be considerate of the impact of your language and actively want to be more inclusive, don’t wait until you’ve made a mistake to try to learn about what pitfalls exist. In addition to looking up specific examples, it’s useful to understand underlying assumptions and attitudes in society in order to better understand context. Searching for terms like heteronormativity, ableism or intersectionality will introduce you to concepts that reveal the roots of why certain words and phrases promote inclusivity or not, and how unconscious bias is perpetuated through language. There are loads of resources out there and I’ve included some helpful links at the bottom of this page.
No one can deny that communicating is hard, especially if you aren’t using your first language. Language is always evolving and people have different opinions so there will never be definitive answers. That’s why having principles to guide you is so important. I hope the advice I’ve provided is useful and helps you think about how to be more inclusive every day.
Remember: respect, empathy, and an open mind.
Further readingWhy Inclusive Language Is So ImportantLet’s Get Practical: Language MattersLGBTQ-inclusive Language Dos and Don’tsInclusive Language and Imagery for DisabilityGender-Inclusive Language
06 February 2020
By Elizabeth Wynn