Using Inclusive Language at Your Organization
Published: October 8, 2020
Author: Lori Gorcyca
How to Build Inclusivity into Your Everyday Communications
No matter the audience – colleagues, clients, customers, family, friends, teachers, students, etc. – words carry weight. We have reached a point in our collective consciousness where we need to consider both our actions and the language we use. There is no longer any excuse for using or distributing materials that use outdated, exclusive vocabulary and ideas. It’s not only individual words or phrases that we need to address; inclusive language principles include setting up a framework for all types of communication that is inclusive for everyone.
“Be Inclusive” is a core value at 3Q, and we are committed to putting in the work to make sure our internal language, our external communications, our recommendations for clients, and, in a larger sense, our company culture, are welcoming for all. In this post, I’ll lay out some general guidelines and then provide a list of specific terms we must say good-bye to – with suggestions for how to use more inclusive language.
Guiding Principles & Importance of Inclusive Language
I’ll start using five broad, guiding principles that are helpful in figuring out how you can package your messaging respectfully and inclusively for a diverse audience.
- Put people first: The focus of any type of communication needs to be the person, so that the person’s characteristics are secondary. So, for example, instead of saying “a deaf man,” use “a man who is deaf.” This helps to make the person the most important part. Characteristics (gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial group, or ability) should only be used if they are relevant to the conversation.
- Don’t underplay mental disabilities: Often, we casually throw around words and phrases such as “bipolar,” “OCD,” “PTSD,” and “ADD,” but these are very real mental health struggles for many people. Using terms like these outside of a mental health discussion downplays the reality of those experiencing a mental disorder. A best practice would be to avoid any stigmatizing language that relates to mental health, which also includes words like “schizo,” “psycho,” and “insane.”
- Remember that “guys” is not gender-neutral: Though the phrase “guys” seems harmless, it actually says a lot. Gendered language puts the emphasis on a preferred group within the communication. Substituting inclusive words like “folks,” “people,” “you all,” “y’all,” and “teammates” helps to minimize this bias.
- Avoid idioms, jargon, and acronyms: Industry jargon and acronyms can unknowingly exclude someone who may not have specialized knowledge of a subject. If you use acronyms, consider leading with an explanation of what they may stand for. Likewise, idioms often don’t translate well and have the potential to exclude or embarrass someone who may be from another geographic area. Instead, use words and phrases that don’t carry such cultural connotations.
- If you’re not sure, ask: For many of us, taking a critical look at the way we use language will be new, and there will be mistakes and missteps in the process. Inclusive language is used to reflect a personal style and an individual’s or group’s preference, so if you aren’t sure how someone wants to talk about themself, just ask
Exclusive Phrases & Words to Stop Using
Here, with a big hat tip to this Medium article from Nehemiah Green, is a list of phrases that use gendered, exclusive terms and also everyday phrases that have racist roots. We should try to avoid these in all forms of communication.
Bossy: This term has been skewed to negatively describe women who are direct and communicate expectations. Other adjectives that tend to have negative connotations, especially toward women, are “emotional”, “hysterical”, “feisty”, and “bubbly”.
Blacklist and Whitelist: These terms reinforce the racist notion that black=bad and white=good. Alternatives could be “blocklist/denylist” and “allowlist”.
Girl/Girls, Ladies/Gals: For anyone over 18 years old, use “woman” or “women” to avoid being reductive.
Grandfathering/grandfather clause: An expression used to describe a way to exempt some people from a change because of conditions that existed before the change (e.g. “Current members will be grandfathered in, regardless of rating.”) The term “grandfather clause” originated in the American South in the 1890s as a way to defy the 15th Amendment and prevent Black Americans from voting, so it should be avoided. Some alternative words might be “legacy” or “heritage”.
Gypped: A racial slur for being defrauded, swindled, or cheated. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term is probably a shortened version of “‘gypsy”,’ a word commonly used to describe the Romani people.
Ghetto: The establishment of ghettos was a cornerstone in the Nazi process of separating, persecuting, and decimating Europe’s Jewish population. In the United States, the term became associated with poverty-striken areas with non-white residents. Now, it’s a derogatory term used to mean low-class or lacking manners.
Housekeeping: In reference to office work, this language can feel gendered. Suggested alternatives are “maintenance” or “cleanup”.
Indian/American Indian: This dates back to Christopher Columbus and naming a people from an Anglo-Saxon point of view. It implies that these robust nations were only defined by how they were perceived by Europeans after 1492. Use the term “Native American” or “Indigenous People”.
Lame: Originally used in reference to people with compromised mobility, currently often a synonym for “uncool.” Both uses are ableist. Just say “not cool.”
Man: As a synonym for work — as in “man hours,” “man the inbox,” “man the conference booth” — this is clearly gendered language. Try using “work” instead.
Master/slave: Problematic set of words used in computing and other technical contexts, as a reference to situations where one process or entity controls another. Replacements include “primary/replica” or “leader/follower”.
Minority: Sometimes used as an umbrella term for people from underrepresented groups including African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. Instead say, “people from underrepresented backgrounds” or indicate a specific ethnic group.
Peanut gallery: This term for pestering or unwanted disturbance originated in the late 19th century when the peanut gallery referred to the back section of theaters, which were the cheapest seats and the only places that people of color were allowed to sit.
Inclusive Phrases & Words to Use Instead
Now that we have established some terminology to avoid (and by no means is the above list exhaustive), we’re pulling some highlights from Courtney Seiter’s Buffer article to provide some easy substitutions that make communication more inclusive.
More inclusive: Folks, people, you all, y’all, teammates
Less inclusive: Guys (when referring to people overall)
More inclusive: Women
Less inclusive: Girls, Gals (when referring to adults)
More inclusive: Workforce, personnel, workers, team
Less inclusive: Manpower, man hours
More inclusive: Chairperson, chair, moderator, discussion leader
Less inclusive: Chairman, foreman
More inclusive: Spouses/partners
Less inclusive: Wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends
More inclusive: Parenting
Less inclusive: Mothering, fathering
More inclusive: Typical
Less inclusive: Normal
(There’s inherent bias in using one group as a standard against which all others are judged. Use of the word normal as the comparison can stigmatize people who are different and imply they are abnormal.)
More inclusive: Marginalized groups or underrepresented groups
Less inclusive: Minorities
(Not all marginalized groups are minorities, and a broader term is usually inclusive of more than race and gender.)
Where Do We Go from Here?
So what happens when we slip up or get called out for using an outdated or offensive word or phrase (because it will inevitably happen)? To put it simply, and in the words of a favorite 3Q value, “Own It.”
Our initial reaction may be one of protest or defensiveness, but it’s necessary to move past those feelings, listen, and graciously accept the feedback coming at you. How else are we to grow and evolve as people and participants in our global community?
In the same vein, giving feedback should also be done in a way that ensures that the message we are trying to send, not the delivery, is the focus. If you want to be heard, try to minimize the defensiveness of your audience. Ultimately, you can’t make anyone change the words they use or how they act, but you can offer constructive feedback that can possibly inspire that change and help broaden their perspective. These small changes are a good place to start for much bigger action
Learn more about our ongoing initiatives to create a more diverse and inclusive culture at 3Q Digital.