Why inclusive language matters.
“Think before you speak.”
We all grew up hearing this familiar token of advice that we’ve carried with us into our personal and professional interactions with others. And in today’s social and political climate, as new voices rise to challenge norms, raise awareness, and reshape the world, I’ve come to realize that this habit is more important now than it’s ever been before – especially as it pertains to the topic of inclusivity and using inclusive language in our day-to-day interactions with clients, colleagues, and vendors.
Inclusive language is a communication style that incorporates phrases and expressions that are inherently welcoming. By design, this communication style avoids assumptions that might exclude certain groups of people, even if the exclusion is unintended.
As an agency that’s committed to diversity and inclusion in all communications, we strive to use inclusive language in emails, memos, briefs, and even visual communications, like imagery and video content.
Tips for putting inclusive language into practice.
If you’re looking to commit to inclusivity in your daily interactions, here are a few ways you can get started:
- Be aware. The first step is to consciously make the commitment to being more aware. After writing an email, brief, memo, or other document, review the content and ask yourself, “Am I inadvertently excluding anyone with the wording I’ve chosen?”
- While speaking, writing emails, or utilizing other forms of communication, make sure you don’t use gender-specific terms (“guys” is a common one) and instead go for words like “folks,” “team,” or “all.”
- When creating audience personas, keep inclusivity top of mind.
- Instead of making assumptions about biological parents and defaulting to the terms “mother” and “father,” define the family unit with terms such as “guardian,” “parent,” or “caregiver.”
- The same goes for marital relationships. Using “spouse” or “partner” is always a better bet than “husband” or “wife.”
- Use gender-neutral language when referencing careers and professions in persona development. For example, consider the following alternatives for these gendered job titles:
- Chairman – chair, chairperson, coordinator, head
- Mailman – mail carrier, letter carrier, postal worker
- Policeman – police officer
- Congressman – legislator, congressperson, congressional representative
- Consider listing your pronouns (e.g., “she/her,” “he/him,” “they/them”) in your email signature, LinkedIn profile, and other public-facing communications.
- Try using nonprescriptive language around faith and belief systems.
- “Sending positive thoughts” is usually a better option than “keeping you in our prayers.”
- Be mindful of other belief systems and the holidays your clients and colleagues celebrate (or don’t celebrate).
- As we work to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health diagnosis and treatment, it’s important to be mindful of using terms like “OCD,” “ADHD,” and “addicted to” when referring to everyday behaviors. These terms should be reserved for actual mental health references only and never used in jest.
- Steer clear of using words that are ableist in nature, such as “blind,” “deaf,” “insane,” “lame,” and “nuts.” These terms have the potential to be very offensive, even when used among close friends and colleagues.
- Avoid using contradictory phrases like “awfully good.” These types of phrases create confusion not only for international audiences but also for people who identify as being on the autism spectrum.
- Proceed with caution when using slang, as many slang terms have negative connotations from centuries ago. For example, “grandfather in” actually refers to a term from the 1800s that described a way to prevent Black Americans from voting.
It’s okay to not know.
If you’re not sure of something, ask. It’s perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers, but you need to be willing to look to a reputable source for information. We’re all learning! And unlearning. Your level of awareness and commitment to being more inclusive will ultimately shine through in your day-to-day interactions.