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Inclusive Language in the Workplace: +30 Words You Should Stop Using Now

In today’s increasingly diverse and globalized world, it is paramount that we employ inclusive language in order to comprehensively accommodate and include our colleagues of different genders, sexual orientations, races, and abilities. Not only does inclusive language enhance the mental and emotional well-being of existing employees, but it may also help to ensure all potential clients, partners, and new hires feel welcome, seen, and respected. 

It’s about using language that is considerate, accurate, and inclusive. This demonstrated inclusion leads to higher performance both internally and externally as respect and rapport are strengthened, discrimination and harassment decrease, and the power of stereotypes is diminished. You can read more about how to manage diversity and inclusion in the workplace in this free guide.

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While language is undeniably an ever-changing construct, this article will outline some of the most basic and important ways to avoid gendered, heteronormative, ableist, and prejudiced language and to make inclusive language an easily integrated habit. But first, a few definitions:

Ableist language refers to language that is derogatory, abusive, or negative towards people with disabilities, both physical and cognitive. Non-ableist language generally embraces people-first constructions. For example, instead of a ‘blind man,’ use ‘a man who is blind.’

Heteronormativity is the assumption that heterosexuality (being straight) is the norm and is inherently ideal or superior to other types of sexuality. Heteronormative language is language, which upholds this limiting belief. For example, when you ask a woman about her husband or boyfriend, you are using heteronormative language by assuming she is heterosexual. 

We all communicate from our own unique perspectives and worldviews but in diverse organizations and settings, we are obliged to tap into our capacity for empathy and consider the weight of the language we use. Vocabulary that may seem innocuous to some may be offensive and alienating to others. In the spirit of building strong working relationships, we will cover some easy and understandable ways to be more inclusive in:

  • Daily, casual speech
  • Written language: Slack and other messaging platforms, emails, and presentations
  • Job descriptions
  • Product/service marketing content

Using Gender-Neutral Language

First of all, the most basic way that we can avoid gendered language in English is by employing gender-neutral terms when addressing groups of people. 

Neutral Terms Gendered Terms
Hey Team(mates) / Everyone / Folks / All / You All / Y’all / Friends / People / Colleagues / Audience Members Hey Guys / Dude / Bro / Man
Good Morning Everyone! / People! / Folks! Good Morning Ladies & Gentlemen!
Humankind’s accomplishments… Mankind’s accomplishments...
Workforce Manpower

 

Additionally, we can take advantage of non-gendered terms when describing people’s professional titles:

Neutral Term Gendered Term
Actor Actress
Legislator Congressman
Server Waitress
Police Officer Policeman
Firefighter Fireman
Salesperson / Sales associate Salesman
Chairperson / Moderator Chairman

 

Moreover, we can use non-gendered terms when talking about family members in order to avoid heteronormative language:

Neutral Term Gendered Term
Partner Husband / Wife / Boyfriend / Girlfriend
Spouse Husband / Wife
Child Daughter / Son
Sibling Sister / Brother
Parent / Caregiver / Guardian Mother / Father

 

Inclusive Language: How To Ask About Pronouns?

Another way to ensure that your clients and colleagues feel welcome and respected is by initially introducing yourself with the pronouns you use and then asking their pronouns in turn. While this may seem a bit extreme or confusing, it is becoming increasingly popular and will soon be the new norm. 

Some individuals do not identify within the binary confines of female and male, which Western society has traditionally embraced. These individuals may experience their gender as a mixture of male and female or they may be outside of those binaries completely. Side note: the term non-binary is not necessarily a synonym for transgender

While there are quite a few different pronouns that people can now choose from (ze / hir(s)) the most commonly used non-binary pronouns are they, them, and their. You may be thinking that this can cause a lot of potential confusion if you are referring to one individual while using these pronouns, which traditionally referred to more than one individual, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can adjust and use context to parse a speaker’s intended meaning. 

Here are some examples of ways you can ask a colleague or client’s pronouns and easily implement them: 

Affirmative Language Negative Language

What are your pronouns?

How would you like me to address you?

What pronouns do you prefer? - Try to avoid language that refers to choice or preference because using correct pronouns is a requirement and a sign of respect.
[Take the lead] I'm Reem and I go by she/her/hers. And you? I'm Reem. You must be the new girl! What's your name?
For the comfort of everyone in the interview, please feel free to let me know what pronouns you use and what name you'd like us to refer to you by.  Would you like to be addressed as Mrs. or Miss?
I spoke to the marketing director and they said that they'd get back to me. I spoke to the marketing director and she said she'd get back to me.
I think someone forgot their laptop. I think he forgot his laptop.
Who's in charge of the proposal? I'll email them. Who's in charge of the proposal? I'll email him.

 

LANGUAGE TIP! Use the pronouns they / them / their / theirs to refer to one person without specifying their gender. This way, you will be (1) using gender-neutral language, and (2) avoiding duplicating pronouns when you are not sure. Compare examples A and B below:

  • Example A: If you like the candidate and he/she is interested, we will offer him/her a nice package.
  • Example B: If you like the candidate and they are interested, we will offer them a nice package.

Additional ways to consciously highlight the fact that your company respects and uses an individual’s pronouns is by providing spaces for them to indicate their pronouns on name tags at events and on job applications. You can also set an example or encourage employees and colleagues to add their pronouns to their Slack profiles, their email signatures, and any other profile used for communication.

Two things to remember: First, if you make a mistake don’t fixate on it. Instead, sincerely apologize, correct yourself, and move on. Second, it is not the responsibility of individuals from (any) underrepresented background to explain the history and context behind the pronouns they use, the way they perform their gender, or the ins and outs of their sexuality. They shouldn’t be expected to speak as a representative of their diverse community as they try to live out their daily life. Rather, only ask questions that you yourself would feel comfortable answering.  

Addressing Diverse Groups Of People 

In addition to being inclusive in regard to gender identities and the use of non-gendered terms when addressing diverse groups of people, we should bring conscious awareness to our use of adjectives when describing people or situations. Instead, employ a person-first sentence construction and choose more accurate and descriptive adjectives!

Affirmative Language Negative Language
A person with autism An autistic person.
A person of short stature of a little person Midget / Dwarf
She’s terrible, outrageous, and unreasonable.  She's a psychopath. / She's crazy!
Fastidious Obsessive-compulsive
That movie was so sad or disheartening. That movie was so depressing.
He is acting outrageous and unpredictable! He’s crazy!
That concert was unenjoyable. That concert was lame. 
That’s ridiculous or absurd.  That’s retarded.

People First - Highlight Accomplishments and Traits

Finally, rather than identifying people by their race or any other physical characteristic, aim to use the people-first construction mentioned above. In lieu of saying, “we need to call Mark, you know, the black guy in the IT department.” Try bringing attention to their personality traits, accomplishments, or other aspects of the individual which are under their control: “We need to call Mark. Remember? He works in the IT department and is a big soccer fan.”

Many of us come from diverse backgrounds and may feel more like global citizens than belonging to one, distinct country, race, or ethnicity. In this same vein, aim to treat and communicate with others in a global, inclusive, and respectful manner; the same way you would appreciate being treated and spoken to when entering novel or unfamiliar environments. 

Adopting A More Inclusive Language

Through the adoption of more thoughtful, impartial, and inclusive language in business environments, we can foster atmospheres of openness and trust, which in turn boost creativity and empower both clients and employees.

If you are interested in diving deeper into this topic and learning more about other diplomatic English techniques, our team here at Talaera can help you and your team acquire those skills and others tailored to your specific needs. Learn more about our online training here. Additionally, you also can check out https://consciousstyleguide.com/, a website devoted to conscious language.

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Inclusive Language - Terminology Key

  • Gender (n.) - the socially & culturally constructed characteristics associated with men, women, and gender diverse individuals. Gender identity refers to the ways
  • Sex (n.) - the biological traits associated with physical and physiological features such as genetics and genitalia. 
  • Sexual orientation/sexuality (n.) - an individual’s emotional, romantic, and sexual attraction to a gender(s). It is better understood as a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive or binary categories. Sexuality may also change over time. 
  • Politically correct (PC) (adj.) - agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people
  • Feminism (n.) - the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities
  • “Tap into something” (idiom) - to establish a connection with something in a way that brings about good results
  • Binary (adj.) - relating to, composed of, or involving two things.
  • Transgender (adj.) - used to describe a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.
  • Black (n.)/black(adj.) - a type of racial identity that celebrates the race of individuals who often have unique ethnicities, cultures, and origins worldwide. Not all black people are African American and many do not feel represented by either the ‘African’ nor the ‘American’ aspects of this term. As with any type of identifying terminology, please respect the individual if they express a personal preference. 
  • Race (n.) - a group of people that share biological and physical characteristics (such as skin color)
  • Ethnicity (n.)  - the socially constructed grouping of people that share a cultural tradition and identity
  • “In the same vein” (idiom) - of a similar kind or in the same style

Build Your Team Based On Inclusive And Effective Communication

At Talaera, we specialize in business English communication skills, and we can help your team grow united through inclusive and effective communication. Through 1:1 sessions, group courses, or private webinars, your team will get 100% personalized training with the right content and materials to achieve your goals. Learn more here.

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Download the guide to read more about this topic and book a free consultation to receive more information about our business English training. 

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