Language is one of the most powerful tools that we have as human beings. It connects us with others, allows us to express our thoughts, and fosters a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. Language binds us together as humans, and what we say is equally as crucial as what we do.
This is why it’s important to use inclusive language — especially in the workplace. After all, a healthy workplace is one that’s composed of people with different skills, backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. As such, the language we use to address each and every person must come from a place that reflects values such as respect, compassion, and acceptance.
How then can we exercise inclusive language? Here are some principles that can guide us to become inclusive not only in our thoughts and actions, but also in our words:
Have a People-centric Approach
When practicing inclusive language, remember who we are talking to: people. As such, being inclusive entails using an approach that is centered on the person instead of their physical or assumed traits; such as gender identity, ethnicity, religion, etc.
We may think this is a simple, even trivial change. However, using language that recognizes a person first instead of describing them through their condition goes a long way in acknowledging their individuality without invalidating their social identities.
Respect Gender Pronouns
Sex and gender tend to be used interchangeably, but these terms are completely different. Simply put, sex is someone’s biological sex at birth, while gender is how a person identifies themselves, which may not necessarily correspond with their biological sex.
When we use and respect a person’s choice of pronouns, we acknowledge and validate that aspect of their identity. It’s a sign of acceptance and support.
If we don’t know for sure how someone identifies we should be mindful of being neutral until they have self-identified. Referring to someone as a “person”, by their name, or using “they/them” until we know their preferred pronouns avoids assumptions and potentially mis-gendering someone.
Be Mindful of Perpetuating Stereotypes and Norms
Generic statements about groups based on gender, ethnicity, disabilities, socio-economic status, or other similar types of social identities grossly generalizes that group and can alienate individuals within it. This goes back to having a people-centric approach, and considering the various social identities, and preferred labels, or specific contributions of an individual. If addressing a group, try to be specific. For example, rather than say “Elderly people tend to prefer lower impact exercises”, be specific by saying “People over the age of 65 tend to prefer lower impact exercises”. It is also helpful to cite sources and proper research when quantifying metrics of any group.
Words Are Powerful
Inclusive language is important for cultivating inclusion and belonging in the workplace. At its core, inclusive language is a show of compassion and respect for our colleagues. By staying open to learning and adapting more inclusive language, as individuals and as an organization, we are cultivating a positive, trusting, workplace that can thrive.
Our next article in this series:
Inclusive Language 101: Race & Ethnicity