How to get better at using inclusive language in the workplace

Even people who are advocates of diversity and knowledgeable about the subject can be nervous about choosing the right words to describe different aspects of personal identity. This is especially true when interacting with people whose personal identities they have not often encountered. How should I address the chief marketing officer who identifies as a queer black woman or the new administrative intern from Oman who uses a service animal at work? These moments bring us face to face with our own insecurities, assumptions and lack of awareness. They force us to think about our unconscious biases and language habits.

Frankly, inclusive language doesn’t often come naturally, even to people who believe in and advocate the value of diversity. Using intentional, inclusive language requires us to constantly examine our unconscious biases and language. Learning to do it good requires education, mindfulness and repetition. Practice helps us avoid reinforcing harmful language habits and assumptions that can harm our relationships. The effort is well worth the potential results.

Progress not perfection

Inclusive language, in its most fundamental form, focuses on understanding and embracing the humanity of communication. As you begin your inclusive language practice, remember that this is an ongoing journey with no finite destination. To learn to speak inclusively, we must keep learning, practicing and pushing ourselves towards personal growth.

You certainly won’t get everything right in the beginning. You will hear yourself making mistakes. In those moments, especially when you think about what you have learned from this handbook, you may feel ashamed, frustrated, or discouraged. Remember that the first steps are always the hardest. Professional singers have vocal coaches and people from different professions need to constantly improve or refresh their skills, so give yourself the space to learn without judgment.

Your heightened sensitivity to language is proof that you are learning. It means you’re starting on the right track. What’s important is that you keep learning and trying. As long as you keep trying, you’ll make progress. Inclusive language is a lifelong practice – think of it as a kind of language yoga. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and apologize, correct it and get back on track.

It’s also worth noting that changing your language habits can feel like hard work. It can make you defensive, nervous, embarrassed, confused, or trigger other emotions. All those feelings are normal and okay. What is important is that you take the first steps. Start learning and start practicing. Feel comfortable if you feel uncomfortable. You will definitely make mistakes along the way, but you will also find that people are forgiving when they know you are committed to being more inclusive.

Language is both a mirror and a force, constantly reflecting and influencing our actions, attitudes and beliefs. That can be scary if you think every word is a window into your unconscious bias, but every interaction can also be a window into your best intentions and personal growth.

If you build a diverse team and push for inclusion, but then casually use insensitive terms that quietly offend or discourage participation, you’ve taken one step forward and two giant steps back. You know the risk of doing it wrong; this guide shows you how to do it right.

6 guidelines for inclusive language use

Put people first. Use person-first language. When describing others, start with the word “person” or “people.” For example, say “a person with diabetes” versus “a diabetic patient.” At first, this may seem like a minor or unnecessary distinction. It’s not. Adopting person-first language recognizes the complexity of personal identity and recognizes that each person is so much more than one of their identity descriptions. In other words, when you say “a person with” you are insisting that the descriptor is only one aspect of that person’s identity (just as you would say “a person who likes to cook” or “a person with brown hair” ). In addition, only include people’s identity descriptions if they are relevant to the current discussion. Use universal phrases. Avoid idioms, acronyms, jargon, and cultural expressions that don’t make sense to all people. Think for example of the American expression “hit it out of the park”, the British expression “throw a spanner in the works”, or the Australian expression “it’s chockers here”. All three are in English, but none translate well outside their own national culture. In a professional environment, such expressions can get in the way of effective communication and make people feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, confused or left out. Recognize the impact of language on mental health. When we describe everyday behaviors, moods, and personality traits using terms associated with mental health diagnoses (e.g., bipolar, PTSD, ADHD, or OCD), we minimize the very real and serious impact these conditions have on people. Avoid using these terms unless they have been medically diagnosed and shared with you personally. Even then, they probably aren’t necessary or relevant to the conversation in progress. For the same reason, avoid derogatory terms that arise from the context of mental health, such as schizo, spaz, paranoid, crazy, or psycho. Use genderless language. Stop the general use of “man” or “dude” to describe people, as in “humanity”, “police officer” or “you”. Those terms reinforce a culture that favors only men. Replace these with terms that are gender-free, such as “humanity,” “police officer,” and “everyone.” When choosing a pronoun for an unknown person, choose the singular “she” instead of “he” or the awkward “he/she”. This recognizes the full spectrum of gender identities, including individuals who are non-binary. Think carefully about the images you use. Be sensitive in your use of symbolism. Please note that some descriptors have negative connotations for others and may therefore be offensive. Examples are the words ‘black’, ‘dark’ and ‘blind’ as in ‘a black spot’, ‘dark day’ and ‘blind spot’. Avoid this trap by expressing ideas literally where possible, for example, “It was a sad day,” rather than, “It was a dark day.” Clarify if you are not sure. As colleagues and clients get to know you better, they may choose to share certain aspects of their personal identity with you. Most people are happy to help you through the language that makes them feel quite respected. Clarify with them if you are unsure. Share your self-descriptions and pronouns as you get to know others and feel comfortable with them. They will probably share theirs with you too.

taken from The Inclusive Language Handbook: A Guide to Better Communication and Transformational Leadership by Jackie Ferguson and Roxanne Bellamy. Copyright 2022 by Jackie Ferguson and Roxanne Bellamy. All rights reserved.

Jackie Ferguson is Head of Content and Programming at The Diversity Movement, known for its diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) programming that drives real business results. She leads the MicroVideos platform, 500+ properly sized videos designed for education in the flow of work. She hosts the podcast “Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox.”

Roxanne Bellamy is the editor-in-chief of The Diversity Movement. She is an alumni of the University of North Carolina and Cambridge University.

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