You might be surprised how much exclusionary language can sneak its way into your workplace comms.
Even the formal, written stuff. You don’t have to be a social justice fanatic for these topics to matter, either. Inclusion is a business differentiator, and talented employees (especially of younger generations) won’t stay in environments that they find to be offensive or out of touch for long.
Here are a few tips to make your language more inclusive:
1. If it doesn’t affect the message, don’t use it as a descriptor.
Many people highlight the marginalized features of someone’s identity, like their race, sexuality, gender, religion or disability status, when telling stories or describing events when it is not necessary to do so.
When we unnecessarily mention these factors, but don’t do so with less marginalized identities, we implicitly signal that the marginalized identity is “abnormal.”
Be especially vigilant with this when speaking, as slipups of this nature are more likely to occur during a townhall than in a newsletter.
So, if it’s not pertinent to the story that the person is gay, Black, disabled, trans or Hindu, don’t mention it.
2. Remove ableist idioms.
There are countless idioms in the English language that use physical and cognitive disabilities as a way of figuratively describing occurrences or feelings, but we can trivialize the experiences of the people who live with those disabilities when we use them. Some of the most common words used in ableist ways are “blindspot,” “tone-deaf,” “OCD,” “lame” and “dumb.”
In general, the best way to go about this is to replace the ableist term with a more literal expression, such as saying “uninformative” instead of using “blind” in a figurative way. You can find a helpful list of words to avoid and their inclusive language alternatives here.
3. If she’s an adult, she’s a woman, not a girl.
It’s pretty uncommon to call a masculine person in his mid-to-late twenties a “boy,” but women of that age are often referred to as “girls.” It may seem a small matter to some, but this linguistic change signals the respect that women are due, both in the workplace and outside of it.
4. Default to “them” in the singular.
Our implicit associations do a lot behind the scenes when it comes to our language.
Many people unconsciously refer to certain job titles or other terms of respect with he/him pronouns and other jobs with she/her pronouns. Trying to alternate between pronouns is tedious and often doesn’t stick. Instead, just use “them” when speaking about a hypothetical person or individual who hasn’t been specified. It might take time to get used to it, but defaulting to “them” is an inclusive language choice that will show respect to people of all genders.
5. Trust marginalized people.
If someone tells you that the way you’re speaking to them or about them is offensive, trust them, and do your best to respectfully follow the guidance they lay out.
Especially if you don’t share the marginalized identity that they’re referring to, you don’t have the life experiences necessary to say whether or not what you said “should” or “shouldn’t” be offensive. These kinds of conversations are inevitable when your workplace is full of people with diverse backgrounds. So, embrace them when they occur, and learn from colleagues as you go.
6. When you slip up, correct yourself, and move on.
The point of changing our language is to be inclusive to a broader audience, not to show how woke we are or aren’t. If you catch yourself using exclusionary language in the moment, correct yourself, then move on.
If there’s ableist language on your website or in your messaging, replace it quickly. You don’t have to make a big show of it or apologize to specific individuals in a public setting, which could be embarrassing for them, though a private apology could be beneficial.
Building inclusive language into your comms can be a challenge, especially in public speaking settings like town halls and all-hands meetings, but the failure to do so can be costly.