Why it’s important to use inclusive words

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

Let’s talk about why it’s important to use inclusive words  – language that makes us feel part of the speaker’s circle.

The dictionary defines Inclusive Language as language that avoids the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people. Examples include ‘humankind’ instead of ‘mankind’, ‘boycotted’ instead of ‘blacklisted’ and ‘reasonableness check’ instead of ‘sanity check’.

Why it’s important to use inclusive words

Our language is riddled with words that are less than inclusive – and many of these are unintentional and even unsuspected by the user.  But there is good reason to try to be more inclusive with our words, especially in the workplace.

Non-inclusive language limits possibilities.  For instance, a job description for the role of a ‘chairman’ (instead of a ‘chairperson’) will be interpreted positively only by men.  Anyone else who is not a man might find the job title unsuitable, unappealing or even perceive themselves as unwanted or unqualified for the role.

Non-inclusive language can also be perceived as derogatory.  Calling a colleague paranoid or crazy is not just rude, it also belittles the mental condition.  In this way, non-inclusive language can alienate people and intensify feelings of inequality at work.

How we can learn to use inclusive words

Our words betray our thoughts, perceptions and biases. So, as we learn to  become less biased and more informed, we ought to try to reflect this in our language, too.  Here are 3 things that each of us can do to become better at using inclusive language:

1. Know your audience.  To be more inclusive, it’s helpful to understand your audience.   The use of industry-specific jargon, for example, might work with your immediate colleagues, but won’t necessarily be either inclusive or effective at a larger gathering, even if it’s an industry conference.  Using idioms and acronyms with people from different countries or cultures can make them feel under-informed and uninvited. And when speaking to someone you don’t know well, it’s helpful to be more universal in our language, using terms like partner instead of husband or wife.

2. Stop assuming.   One of the biggest mistakes we make with our language is to assume things about people.  We assume their gender, their background, even their education.  What might seem like a benign question such as Where are you from? to a person whose accent is different, can sound like an indictment.  Becoming more self-aware is the first step to mitigating bias.  This can also help us navigate non-inclusive pools of language. In the example above, for instance, we might want to find out where a person is from because they sound different and we assume the accent is a tell-tale sign of an interesting background or story!  What’s wrong with that?  Well, one person’s curiosity is another’s feeling of exclusion.  Our curiosity should therefore be balanced with the aim to be inclusive.  In this case, for instance, simply biting our tongue and continuing the conversation might be enough to find out where the individual is from, as it is likely to be volunteered later on in the conversation.

3. Beware of gender stereotypes.  The most common language faux pas tend to be related to gender.  There are words that, while used commonly, can be perceived negatively.  For instance, women tend to dislike the use of the term females or girls when referring to them.  It is also better to use gender-neutral language to ensure everyone feels included, such as children instead of boys and girls.  One term that trips up many of us is guys. Although this term is commonly used to describe a mixed gender group, it is not always perceived as inclusive of all genders and can even be seen to prefer men in the workplace.  A better term could be everyone or team or people.

Using inclusive language is not easy and requires a bit of personal reprogramming, but if it means making more colleagues and friends feel part of the in group – and therefore less self-conscious and even unwanted – then we should all make an effort.  All we’re being asked to do is to honour everyone’s backgrounds and identities – and by doing that we also enrich our own experiences.

If you like this point, you will also enjoy reading Diversity & Inclusion Is Good for Our Mental Health.