The hot topic of Inclusive Language

Recently inclusive language seems to be a hot topic and one that many organisations are asking me to deliver workshops in this area. Particularly for senior leadership teams.  Why is this so important and why does language matter so much? 

Creating a culture of inclusion etiquette

Inclusion etiquette refers to respectful communication and interaction with people who may not have the same characteristics as someone else.  The principles of inclusion etiquette rely on common sense to guide your interactions with people and behave in the same courteous and respectful way with individuals you know in the workplace. It sets out professional workplace standards.

Etiquette may or may not feel like the right word to use here. There can be a sense of stiffness to it, associated with how to be part of the upper class establishment. The flipside to this that etiquette and guidelines may need to be outlined for everyone to understand the terms of engagement in a place of work. 

Defining inclusive language

Inclusive language is communication that avoids using words, expressions or assumptions that may exclude people. The exclusion may be inadvertent but has a negative impact on people. Inclusive language includes emails,marketing material, social media, websites, and other forms of communication, such as imagery. 

Some examples of inclusive language are: 

  • Introducing yourself with your pronouns e.g. I am x, the pronouns I use are she/her, him/he or they. 
  • Avoiding terms like “guys” for everyone and using gender neutral terms staff members, volunteers, visitors or members. 
  • Examples like man vs the moon, are adaptable to humankind vs the moon.
  • Instead of assumptions about biological parents and assuming that there is a mum and dad  to say carer, guardian, parent or caregiver. 
  • English idioms or phrases like “ it’s raining cats and dogs” may need to be explained to international staff members/visitors 
  • We may often say it’s “awfully good”. Does this mean it’s good or bad? This is contradictory and confusing for international audiences and people with SpLDs, such as Asperger’s and Autism.
    Use factual language rather than value-laden words and phrases
  • Try not to erase certain groups with your language, or to lump together all people within a certain group, e.g The Muslims. 
  • Ask in advance if you are not sure of something.

Why inclusive language is important

For communication to be effective, it needs to speak to all audiences for which it is intended. Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people. It is sensitive to differences and promotes equitable opportunities. Language is fluid, therefore meanings and connotations of words can change rapidly. In effect, it is more important to apply inclusive language principles rather than learning specific appropriate phrases, as these may change in meaning over time.

In 2018 a Deloitte Millennial Survey showed that there is a “very strong correlation between perceptions of workforce diversity and loyalty”. 

  • 69% of employees working at organisations they perceive as diverse intended to remain there for at least five years, thus reducing recruitment costs. 
  • Candidates will often turn down opportunities as a result of the impression formed by language that is used in interviews. Language used reflects whether workplace adjustments and support will be put in place. 
  • Candidates stated they can often tell whether an organisation has clear policies just through the tone and phrasing recruitment panels use. 

How inclusive language creates belonging in the workplace

  1. It enables deeper thinking about accessible spaces because staff and teams aren’t afraid to talk about disability. Reducing fear means that there is an increased likelihood that disability will not only be spoken about, but thought about and integrated into new and existing projects. 
  2. Seeing everyone as they want to be seen. This is especially important in relation to gender identity. By creating an open environment where staff use pronouns in all communication everyone is likely to do this and there is less stigma.  
  3. Moving with the times. As I mentioned previously, language changes and evolves faster than we may realise. Being aware and open to shifting language means that the whole organisation can evolve in an agile fashion.  
  4. Using inclusive language challenges both conscious and unconscious biases. Language is powerful, so adjusting words and phrases shifts mindsets too.  
  5. Inclusive language supports disclosure and declaration by creating a safe space making people feel valued. 
  6. Positive language facilitates a collective no blame culture as everyone makes mistakes and that’s ok!  
  7. It lets your customers, clients, service-users and members know that you practise what policies say. Bringing paper-based statements to life, resulting in increased trust with your stakeholders.

What if I get it wrong? 

Accept that you are human and that it’s okay to make mistakes. If you do make a mistake apologise, correct/change what you have said, learn from the mistake, and move on. 

It’s also key to respect people’s privacy. Let people share information about themselves if and when they feel comfortable doing so. Individuals are not responsible for educating the public by revealing their intimate lived experiences. 

Inclusive language goes beyond the carrot and stick legal approach. It’s about human connection and common ground. We are all more than what we chose to declare and have been subject to biases ourselves. It is about listening, hearing and interacting to broaden our horizons and ensure we work together and talk about what will work best for everyone.

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