In every culture, successful business relies on effective communication. We communicate to teach, influence, inspire and sell. As our society becomes more diverse and we embrace different identities, experiences and cultures in the workplace and the marketplace, inclusive language becomes a necessary skill. Without it, you may unintentionally offend the person you are interacting with. At its core, inclusive language seeks to name, honor and value all people. It strives to understand the ways that language often unconsciously makes assumptions about people and reinforces dominant norms around gender identity, sexual orientation, race, class, ability and disability, age and other forms of identity. Using inclusive language is nuanced and changes over time, so honing this skill requires ongoing conversations and open-mindedness for continued learning.
There are six overarching rules for inclusive language that help us avoid antiquated, biased and exclusionary terms that pervade our everyday language. The practice of inclusive language is just that – a practice. Much of language consists of deep-seated expressions and phrases we’ve used since childhood, so making adjustments takes time and patience. Perhaps the most important rule, and at times, the most uncomfortable, is to ask if you aren’t sure. Taking the time to find out how a person self-identifies rather than making assumptions makes people feel seen, respected and validated. Be assured that most people are happy to walk you through language that makes them feel properly acknowledged and respected. Here are a few other guiding principles of inclusive language:
- Put people first. Focus on the person, not their characteristics. Instead of “a blind man,” use “a man who is blind.” Putting people first maintains the individual as the essential element. Only mention characteristics like gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, race or disability when relevant to the discussion.
- Recognize the impact of mental health language. “Bipolar,” “PTSD,” and “OCD” are real mental health diagnoses. Using these terms to describe everyday behaviors underplays the impact of someone’s experiences with a mental health condition. Instead use words like unpredictable, nervous and particular, respectively.
- Use gender neutral language. Using “guys” or “ladies and gentlemen” to address all people is gendered language and excludes genders outside the binary – yes, there are more than two! Instead, use inclusive words such as “everyone” or “team.” You can say, “children” rather than “boys and girls” or “siblings” rather than “brothers and sisters.”
I’ve had people tell me, “We may have gone too far with this diversity stuff.” However, I remind them that we are already seeing the shift toward higher expectations for alignment of personal values and corporate values as employees and consumers. By building trust and creating environments of psychological safety for those who are taking notice, you can achieve your objectives without the roadblocks of excluding, offending or triggering. Studies show that organizations that prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) benefit from increased recruiting and retention rates and also increased market share. To ensure a sustainable business and competitive advantage, leaders must be aware of and able to adapt to the evolving behavior and sentiment of the people they’re serving.
By learning to inclusively speak to a diverse audience, you can broaden your reach and broadcast your message to more people. It’s critical to understand who your audience is and ways to make them feel included. Part of communicating more effectively with a diverse audience is understanding your own biases and how your experiences and values shape the lens through which you view our world. We cannot assume that others share our viewpoint.
Although these concepts apply in any industry and every role, there is significant research on the impact of inclusive language in the human resources (HR) and marketing fields. For HR (and training) professionals, your job descriptions can encourage or discourage diverse groups of candidates to apply. According to LinkedIn’s Gender Insights report, in order to apply for a job, women feel they need to meet 100% of the criteria while men usually apply after meeting about 60%. Research shows that women apply to 20% fewer jobs than men and are more hesitant to ask for a referral from someone they know at the company. Just a few decades ago, most companies centered their marketing efforts around a prototypical consumer unreflective of today’s market. Smart marketers, however, understand that Gen Z is an extremely diverse, highly educated and technologically adept group of consumers, making up 40% of consumer spend. With this size of market share at play, companies must prioritize inclusive marketing.
Most of us believe that all people should feel safe and respected, but many of us also aren’t sure how to advocate for others in our workplaces and communities. Delivering inclusive language training can help employees and leaders take personal steps toward creating spaces and cultures of inclusion.
Each of us deserves the freedom to be our full and authentic selves and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that right for the people we encounter in our life’s journey.