Diversity & Inclusion

Language: How Do Our Choices Fit With an Inclusive Culture? 

Language is ever-evolving. In the history of language, words have emerged, disappeared, and completely changed in meaning. And today, we are at a pivotal time in history. We have a new awareness of how our language choices can either contribute to a more inclusive work environment or create barriers that can harm and divide. Let’s look at why inclusive language is so important; why exclusionary language can be harmful; and how awareness, introspection, and education can support our ability to create a more inclusive work environment.

What is Inclusive Language and Why is it So Important?

One description of inclusive language published by LinkedIn characterizes it this way: “Inclusive language means avoiding biases or discriminatory slang when choosing words and phrases. Certain expressions may discriminate against groups of people based on gender bias, ability, socioeconomic status or race bias. Words matter, so speaking respectfully in the workplace will create a more accepting environment. Inclusive language brings everyone into the conversation.”

Adapting to the use of inclusive language offers us a chance to grow and become better communicators. It also helps leaders and employees become better allies.

Behavioral scientists in Harvard Business Review

By contrast, exclusionary language, whether deliberate or not, can cause people to wince and withdraw from a conversation. Worse yet, hurtful words can cause people to ruminate on a comment long after it is made—at best, creating a distraction and at worst, causing deep humiliation and distress for the individual on the receiving end. So, that’s why it’s important that we consider the damage that exclusionary language can do before we talk about inclusive language.

Language Is Powerful, and It Can Hurt

Think of a time when someone said something that felt hurtful. Did it leave you with a bad feeling that lingered? Did you react in the moment, or did you let it pass? The things that people say can stay with us for a very long time. And just as language can be uplifting and motivating, it can push us down; distract us from our work; and make us feel uncomfortable or, worse yet, unworthy.

Research shows that exclusionary language can have a harmful effect in the workplace. At its worst, exclusionary language can take the form of slurs and derogatory remarks meant to minimize and demean, or it might be revealed through microaggressions sometimes disguised as offhanded remarks or jokes. The comments might even be followed up with something like “I didn’t mean anything by that” or “Why are you being so sensitive?” or “Come on—I’m just kidding!” These types of qualifiers can cause further harm, minimizing and putting the person’s feelings into question. A culture that tolerates exclusionary language, and follow-up comments like these to justify the original remarks, is the antithesis of inclusive. But let’s also look at more subtle variations of exclusionary language that are just as important to understand and address.

It Starts with Understanding Ourselves and Our Choices

First of all, let’s agree that most people are not inherently mean. Aside from people who are deliberately trying to hurt others, likely out of fear or a deep insecurity, most of the rest of us are simply lacking awareness. We don’t understand that some of the language we are using could be potentially hurtful to someone.

To illustrate this point, Raven Solomon, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) author, researcher, and strategist, uses herself as an example. She explains that being inclusive is a lifelong journey that requires ongoing introspection and education and stresses the importance of being intentional with our language. To show her personal commitment to inclusive language, she made a list of the following words that she wants to stop saying, along with potential alternatives.

  • Lame: Once meant to describe someone who was fully or partially disabled, it became a way to describe something dull, stupid, or awkward.
    • Alternatives: boring, mundane, awkward, uninteresting
  • Crazy/insane: An exclamatory remark that may seem innocent but can further stigmatize people with mental illness.
    • Alternatives: wild, ridiculous, outrageous, or unbelievable
  • Guys: This is a subtle gender-exclusive linguistic cue that can make women and those identifying as LGBTQ feel ostracized or excluded.
    • Alternatives: friends, folks, everyone, team, or colleagues
  • Tribe: While often meant in a positive way, this word has roots in a painful history—and its use may be seen as culturally appropriating.
    • Alternatives: community, chosen family, people, friendship circle

If you are using words like these in your everyday language, you are not alone. The point of the list above is to show that we all say things we don’t realize may be exclusionary—or that may have painful historical connotations that can further wound and divide. This example also shows that if an expert in DEI is not beyond putting herself through an exercise to prompt introspection and change, then we can all benefit from doing the same.

Education and Training for Inclusive Language in the Workplace

For HR professionals, creating inclusivity is particularly important and especially difficult. When it comes to language, not only do you need to cultivate your own awareness through introspection, but you also need to help others do the same. The answer is in finding opportunities for your employees to learn and grow by providing them with the kind of education and training that will engage them in meaningful interactions and provide them with a window into how language choices can make others feel and react. One of the best ways to do this is through storytelling, whereby real people describe how they felt when someone said something hurtful or how much better they felt when another person intervened on their behalf. The right kind of instruction can open new doors for employees to create their own personal discoveries and help them learn how to use inclusive language to support each other on a daily basis.

Actions Everyone Can Take to Make Their Language More Inclusive

Here are some steps everyone can take to make their language more inclusive.

  1. Embrace self-discovery. As in the example above, we all need to take a good look at ourselves to understand how our language choices may be causing others hurt and discomfort. This starts with allowing yourself to be vulnerable and open to change. We need to drop our defenses to realize that learning and making mistakes go hand in hand.
  2. Become educated. If your company offers DEI training, take full advantage of it. But don’t stop there. Take time to explore and read about inclusive language, and begin to root out words that may inadvertently be causing harm. Be intentional and deliberate in everything you say to your colleagues.
  3. Let empathy and sensitivity guide your way. Remember that your tone and how you say things are as important as what you actually say. If you say the right words without sincerity, it will come through exactly that way—disingenuous. Let your sense of empathy and sensitivity toward others guide how you express yourself, paying close attention to tone, timing, and context.
  4. Don’t make assumptions. One sure way to prevent yourself from making exclusionary remarks is to avoid making assumptions about people, like their health, abilities, gender, sexual preferences, and other identifying factors. Instead, treat each person you interact with as a unique individual who may be completely different from what you expect.
  5. Be an active observer. The practice of actively observing is a powerful skill. Let the people you interact with set the pace and timing for what they may want to share. But when they do choose to share something about their life, treat it like a gift of trust they have put in you. Protect that trust, and your relationship will strengthen and grow as a result. As you learn more about people, the skill of actively observing will also help inform your word choices in a natural way.
  6. Evaluate your language habits. As in the example above, start questioning some of your typical words/phrases, and find out if any of them have negative or exclusionary connotations. Some changes are simple. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen” is exclusive because not everyone is necessarily one or the other. An easy fix is to simply say, “Good morning, everyone.”
  7. Be kind to yourself and others. Everyone makes mistakes. Each time it happens, we have a chance to learn something new about ourselves and others. At the same time, we have a valuable opportunity to improve our workplace relationships. Education and training can help you find specific ways to react when you make a mistake, but here are things you will always need: humility, empathy, and a genuine desire to do the right thing.

The suggestions above are just a few ideas for how you can enhance your awareness and reevaluate your language choices. But the most important thing to remember is that being inclusive is a lifelong journey. It will be full of mistakes, but as long as you truly care about treating others with the respect and understanding they deserve, the journey will be well worth taking.

Tips for Inclusive Language

  • Be clear, specific, and deliberate. Avoid using language that can be confusing, like “corporate talk” or jargon.
  • Avoid words/phrases rooted in racial bias, gender-descriptive words, or any language that might offend or exclude people because of their identity.
  • Rethink the use of colloquialisms, idioms, metaphors, and similes, as they may not be relatable for everyone.
  • Keep current with changing language by consulting sources such as the American Psychological Association, the Linguistic Society of America, and the U.S. General Services Administration.
  • Incorporate common tools. Behavioral scientists suggest using tools such as the “inclusive language” feature available in Microsoft® Office, which suggests neutral alternatives to biased language.

Natasha Nicholson is the Director of Content Marketing at Kantola Training Solutions, an innovative e-Learning company focused on DEI and harassment prevention training solutions. She is responsible for thought leadership, content strategy, and production, and her background includes more than 20 years as a content leader, a communication strategist, and an editor. Before Kantola, she was the Content Director for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and served as Executive Editor for Communication World and Catalyst magazines.