4 Do’s On Inclusive Language Backed by Experts
August 19th, 2021
In the digital age, everything is memorialized, especially in a professional setting. There is a permanent digital trail of every email, message, Slack GIF you’ve sent. Last year alone, over 70% of office workers in the US adopted remote working, and many companies announced an option for employees to work from home forever.
This seismic shift in the way we work is why digital communication is an indispensable skill. You want to make sure that the content and the context of your message is effective and appropriate. Most importantly, because language is one of the most important and easiest ways to change the dynamics of a workplace, communication needs to be inclusive, concise, and clear.
“A study from Gallup found that US companies lose $500 billion annually simply from bias in a workplace. A lot of the biases can be attributed to language and how people interpret it. That’s why we have to be very intentional with our word choice,” said Shirin Nikaein, CEO, Co-Founder of Upful.ai, a behavioral-science backed coaching tool for writing effective and inclusive performance reviews and feedback. Words help us understand ourselves and the people around us. Now more than ever, communication needs to be effective and equitable.
Here are 4 ways to do that:
DO: Gender-inclusive language
DO: Ditch words embedded with mental health stigma
DO: Shift from person-first to identity-first language
DO: Check the references of idioms
- DO: Gender-inclusive language
“One thing that people don't recognize is how much language shapes their mental models and how much language shapes the categories that they use to make snap judgments and to analyze the world,” said Dr. Suzanne Wertheim, an anti-bias researcher, consultant, and linguist. “For example, the word ‘mankind’ supposedly represents ‘humankind’; ‘man’ supposedly represents ‘human’.”
Using male-oriented language to refer to universal categories erases the presence of other gender identities on the gender continuum (e.g. female, nonbinary, genderqueer, etc.)
One of the simplest steps to ensure gender equity in the language is by using gender-inclusive pronouns. For example:
- Replace “Hi guys” with “Hi folks,” “Hi everyone,” “Hi y’all”
- Instead of using “he” or “she,” use “they,” “their,” “this person,” “themselves,” etc.
Another easy way to be inclusive in your language is to use gender-neutral terms to eliminate gender stereotypes. For example:
- Instead of asking, “How did you and your wife meet?”, ask, “How did you and your partner meet?”
- Instead of asking “How did your mother and father meet?”, ask, “How did your parents meet?”
Most importantly, if you haven’t already, start introducing yourself with pronouns. And if you don't know what pronouns someone uses, please ask because it’s better to ask than it is to guess. All you have to do is say, "what pronouns do you use?" For example:
- Instead of saying, “Hi! My name is Joan,” you may say, “Hi! I'm Joan, and I use she/her/hers pronouns."
- Add pronouns to your email signature, social media profiles,
- DO: Ditch words embedded with mental health stigma
Despite the availability of mental health interventions and treatment methods, nearly half of the population living with a disorder did not seek treatment, one of the major barriers being the stigma around mental health.
“A stigma is an unchecked and negative label on someone’s identity. There are many stigmas, including ones that are related to gender, culture, and even employment status,” Angel Hu, Organizational Psychologist based in New York City. “Mental health related stigmas perpetuate the toxic cycle of shaming and blaming people who are living with real traumas and/or disorders.”
To change this, we can start by removing phrases of mental illness or mental disability outside of the medical context or in a derogatory way. For example:
- Instead of saying, “I’m OCD” say “I’m super organized.”
- Instead of saying, “She’s insane,” say, “She seems impulsive.”
- Instead of saying, “My cat is anti-social,” say, “My cat prefers to be alone.”
- Instead of saying, “This rain is so bipolar,” say, “This rain is
- DO: Shift from person-first to identity-first language
In 2006, the Council of the District of Columbia enacted The People First Respectful Language Modernization Act of 2006, requiring “the use of respectful language when referring to people living with disabilities.” The enactment of this act shows how far we have yet to go on this journey of eliminating bias in our language.
“Person-First Language (PFL) puts the person before the disability, and describes what a person has, not who a person is.” For example:
- Instead of saying “the autistic person,” say “the person who has autism”
For the most up-to-date guides on substituting outdated or offensive terms with Person-First Language, check out this list from The Office of Disability Rights.
If you are unsure, remember that it is ok to ask which type of language a person with a disability prefers. By communicating and inquiring with curiosity and kindness, you are actively de-stigmatizing your communities.
- DO: Check the references of idioms
In the English language, many seemingly innocuous terms are rooted in systems of oppression such as racism, sexism, ableism.
In addition, to people whose first language is not English, using local idioms and slangs can further marginalize them in an English-speaking country like the US.
To change this, we can:
By now, you should have a good understanding of why words matter, and how you can be more intentional about the language you use. Maya Angelou, poet, author, activist, said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
So, how do you want people to feel?
Upful.ai is a software tool that coaches people to write employee performance feedback/reviews that are more meaningful, objective, and unbiased. Upful can improve employee engagement & retention, reduce workplace bias & discrimination, and make career growth more inclusive & equitable. To learn more, visit: get.upful.ai
AllVoices is an anonymous reporting and feedback platform built for the employee and the employer. Its customizable and user-friendly dashboard and case management system enables employers to proactively identify, understand, and resolve conflict, improving overall workplace culture. To learn more, visit: allvoices.co