Business Leaders Need to Take Inclusive Language More Seriously — Here's Why.
Words that used to be very commonplace are now recognized as exclusionary and have been replaced with more inclusive language. Here's why using that's essential to understand for your business.
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Words matter. The words we choose to say and not say signal to people what we value. When we use words that are outdated or alienating, we signal to folks that we're not inclusive. Despite good intentions, non-inclusive language can create division.
Inclusive language makes people who have been historically marginalized feel included. These marginalized communities include — but aren't limited to — groups who have been excluded because of their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, language, immigration status and more.
Language is one of the biggest signals of culture. Inclusive cultures practice using inclusive language, which has shifted over time. Words that used to be very commonplace are now recognized as exclusionary and have been replaced with more inclusive language.
To practice inclusive language, consider understanding why it matters and learning words to use and not use.
Why inclusive language matters
Replacing our traditional language with a more updated inclusive language shows people are trying to be better. Rather than simply stating you want to be an ally or be more inclusive, doing the work shows you mean it. It is one small step to take on the journey of allyship. Allyship is not a self-proclamation — it is in the eye of the beholder.
When we use more inclusive language, we can lift up marginalized groups that are adversely affected by perpetuating stereotypes and unintentionally left out of conversations and workplace activities. By including people with language, we can include them in more experiences.
Performative allies say they are inclusive, active allyship is about inclusive behavior. It's entirely possible for leaders to use inclusive language but not be active allies. Inclusive language is only a small part of what makes you an ally. While language is only one step of the bigger journey to allyship (and there is no destination), it is an important one. For allyship to be successful it must be consistent and intentional and practiced over time.
As Deloitte summarizes, "an organization cannot leverage all the benefits of an increasingly diverse workforce without an environment that is inclusive and encourages people to bring a variety of experiences, ideas and perspectives to the workplace. Creating an inclusive environment and fostering a culture of belonging requires all levels of an organization to demonstrate inclusive behaviors."
It is never too late to learn to be more inclusive. If you aspire to be more inclusive, inclusive language is a great place to start. Practicing using up-to-date welcoming language invites others that are different from you to engage more in conversation.
I remember when I added my pronouns to my email signature a few years ago. At the time I didn't think it was necessary. I am cisgender and I use she/her pronouns. But when I added my pronouns to my email signature and my social media accounts, I was surprised by the response.
My clients asked questions and quickly followed suit. I also noticed different types of conversations with people in my personal life. A parent of my daughter's friend noticed my pronouns on my email signature and shared details about her family I would not have known — their son is gay. She said she felt safe sharing because she knew I was a safe place. My pronouns in my email signature built a relationship that I cherish today.
That's the thing about inclusive language. It can help facilitate hard conversations or bring up something that might be potentially hard to surface. You still need to do the work to strive to be an ally, and inclusive language is an important step on the perpetual journey.
Words to consider avoiding
Inclusive language is expansive, but there are some everyday words that we all frequently use today that can unintentionally be exclusive. Consider the following list:
- Guys: The challenge with "guys" is that it implies a masculine gender identity in a group. The word has a deep history in referring to groups of men, not women. When we call a mixed gender group "guys" we presuppose the dominant gender in the group. For groups of women, this is especially problematic. Instead, consider non-gendered terms like "you all," "friends" or "everyone."
- Minorities: A common term that used to be used to talk about underrepresented groups. The problem is that it suggests a less than status on groups as if they are inferior rather than what we really mean is that they are not fully represented in an organization or culture (likely due to circumstances outside of their control like race or gender).
- Disabled: The word disabled implies that somebody's identity is based on a limitation. Instead, try replacing it with a person with disabilities. When talking about somebody that may not have a disability currently, you can also say non-disabled instead of able-bodied which suggests ableist as the default. A total of 26% of people globally are living with some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It matters to include them and their identities positively.
- Crazy: For folks with mental health challenges, the word crazy can be very triggering. They may have been called this or felt this because of their mental condition. Try using "wild" or "exciting" instead.
- Master or blacklist: Any words rooted in slavery are problematic. Master bedroom or master code can conjure up images of enslaved folks and our dark history. Words like "blacklist" versus "whitelist" signal black being associated with negative and white associated with positive. There are simple ways to replace these words with what you actually mean like the main bedroom or priority list.
- Blind spot: This is an ableist term that can be harmful to folks with vision disabilities. Instead, simple replacements are weak spots or weaknesses. Say what you really mean.
- He or she: Gender is a spectrum, not binary. Rather than use pronouns as binaries, use they/them to describe singular folks or mixed-gender groups.
- Idioms: For example, in American culture, there are a lot of analogies and metaphors using American sports and culture, such as "knock it out of the park" or "rock star," or references to warlike words such as "soldiers" and "battle." Instead of using language that people may not be familiar with from other countries or may not resonate with folks that are not interested in these activities, consider using the actual language to describe the personal experience.
Words to consider using for inclusivity
Our language signals our intentions. By being intentional with our language, we show people that we're trying to be more inclusive. Gendered language and non-inclusive language are common because people haven't questioned the status quo. Instead of using non-inclusive language, flip your language into what you're actually trying to say. Take the idiom out of language and use language that accurately describes your intentions. It helps others understand your message more clearly.
How to speak more inclusively:
- Remove gendered references when gender is not central to the topic
- Refrain from using culturally centered language that could be difficult for someone from another culture to understand (i.e. sports references or war references)
- If you are unsure if the language is inclusive, find another way to describe what you are trying to say
- Think of a young person trying to understand what you are saying, can you simplify your message so that it could be easily understood by a wider audience
- When in doubt, research it and find a trusted resource or friend to ask (without the expectation of them to educate you)
Make sure your language does not tokenize marginalized groups or could not be interpreted as harmful or dehumanizing. Inclusive language is a starting point for inclusive leadership. There is no end to diversity work and allyship is a lifetime commitment.