4 Steps to Promote Inclusive Language in The Workplace

By Jaagriti Sharma
May 20, 2021

Collaboration Between AllVoices and Upful.ai

Author Erica Dawan recently published “Digital Body Language” (available for purchase in May 2021). In the book’s summary, she shares that “Online, reading carefully is the new listening.  Writing clearly is the new empathy.”

It’s a statement that rings true for many office workers today, as most daily conversations and interactions are being had online. Every Slack message, email, and GIF that you send is recorded, permanently.

Now more than ever, what you say and how you say it matters as virtual communication leaves plenty of room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Words or phrases that you might have gotten away with using in in-person conversations hold more weight, available to be clearly read and reread. Without the emotion of face-to-face interaction, unintentional language can feel very intentional.

Choosing your words carefully and deliberately means that you’re approaching every group with the intent of fostering feelings of belonging and inclusiveness. It also ensures that your comments don’t take on a life of their own, transforming even a complete lack of intent to be offensive. 

“Ultimately, what we all want is to connect with each other — it's who we are as people,” said Andrew Tuchfeld, Director, People Relations at comprehensive customer engagement platform Braze. “We have a unique opportunity to connect with one another in a way that's welcoming and respectful. A practical and powerful way that we can do this in our daily lives is to communicate with understanding, inclusivity, and compassion.”

So, how can you make sure that the language you use is kind and empathetic?

  1. Use Gender-Inclusive Language

Anti-bias researcher, consultant, and linguist, Dr. Suzanne Wertheim, tells us that “language shapes mental models that we use to make snap judgments and to analyze the world. Gendered language is one important way that our mental models can end up biased.” 

Dr. Wertheim shared that “language that is specifically male is often used as if it is universal. This can erase women and non-binary people from people’s mental modeling. So for example, the word ‘mankind’ supposedly represents all of humanity. But studies show that words like 'mankind' only trigger associations with men.” Gender-inclusive language is how we can make sure all people are represented in textbooks, education, media, entertainment, and in society. 

When addressing a group or an individual who hasn’t shared their pronouns, avoid using gender-specific language. Use plural pronouns/adjectives when appropriate. 

  • For example, replace “hi guys” with “hi folks,” “hi everyone,” “hi y’all”. Instead of using “he” or “she,” use “they,” “their,” “one,” “themselves,” etc.

Don’t lead with assumptions about gender identity or roles. 

  • For example, instead of asking, “How did you and your wife meet?”, ask, “How did you and your partner/significant other meet?”

Avoid gender-biased expressions or expressions that reinforce gender stereotypes. 

  • For example, “a woman’s touch.”
  1. Don’t Refer to Phrases of Mental Illness or Mental Disability

Unfortunately, derogatory terms about mental health are used regularly in day-to-day conversations. These stigmatized phrases are damaging emotionally and can have a profound impact on an individual’s well-being. Approximately 40 percent of people with a mental illness don’t get treatment; a major deterrent is a stigma associated with their mental illness.

Do not use phrases of mental illness or mental disability outside of medical context or in a derogatory way. These phrases include words like retarded, crazy, insane, bipolar, psycho, or OCD. 

Instead, make an effort to consciously think about any stigmatized words you’re currently using and how you can choose the better language. 

  • Instead of saying, “I’m OCD” say “I’m super organized.”
  • Instead of saying, “She’s insane,” say, “She seems impulsive.”
  • Instead of saying, “This rain is so bipolar,” say, “This rain is so unpredictable.”
  1. Understand the Difference Between Person-First Language and Identity-First Language

Person-First Language (PFL) is an important aspect of inclusivity when speaking about or to people with disabilities. Although it is a debated topic, most people with disabilities prefer that people without disabilities use person-first language. So, remember to place the emphasis on the individual, not the disability. By using person first language, you are describing what a person has and not who a person is when referring to their disability.

  • Instead of saying “the blind person,” say “the person who is blind or visually impaired”.

The Office of Disability Rights has one of the most up to date guides on substituting outdated or offensive terms with Person-First Language.

There are a few exceptions to this practice- the Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing and Autistic communities.

  • Most Deaf people prefer identity first language. And, they reject the term “hearing-impaired” as a negative term that focuses on what people can’t do.
  • Most autistic people also prefer identity first language with the understanding that autism is a part of their identity, a difference in the way they view the world, not a disorder that they would like cured. However, the preference here varies more between individuals.

If you’re unsure, it’s ok to ask which type of language a person with a disability prefers. Asking and trying sends the message that you’re working to better understand, assuming or bypassing means that you’re letting your discomfort or lack of knowledge allow you to be less inclusive.

  1. Avoid Using Idioms, Jargons, Metaphors or Phrases with Problematic History

Although this type of language can seem innocuous, many idioms, jargons and metaphors can be highly offensive, rooted in racist origins or connotations, or pejorative. Non-precise language is also less inclusive as most folks who grew up outside of the country, or even a region, did not grow up hearing the same language.

Words around physical ability are often used pejoratively when used metaphorically or in commonly used phrases. Consider who is in the room when you use this type of language. Although many common phrases are not considered slurs or may not be offensive to some disabled people, it is language that helps perpetuate ableist ideas and value.

  • For example “crippled/paralyzed with fear”, “falling on deaf ears”, “blindspot”.

Although the above suggestions are by no means complete, they are a good place to start your efforts to be more inclusive. Some people may argue that “they’re just words”. But, folks who are less affected or haven’t experienced the sting of a hurtful phrase are missing out on the opportunity for growth, to be more kind and more mindful by simply adjusting some of the language they use. 

Words are powerful and the different backgrounds and experiences of every unique individual alters the impact of certain words. At the end of the day, people are most remembered for how they made those around them feel. So ask yourself, how do you want to be remembered?

About Upful.ai

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

About AllVoices

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.

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