Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Say This, Not That: A Guide for Inclusive Language

By Kaela Kovach-Galton

Posted @ Mar 18, 2021

The Diversity Movement recently engaged AMA Triangle through a 3-part Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training led by Dr. Florence Holland and AMAT’s AVP of DEI Chris Herndon, including a session delving into unconscious bias and inclusive language. To reiterate, inclusive language means finding ways to name, honor, and value experiences and identities. Increasing the inclusivity of our language means striving to understand the ways that language often unconsciously makes assumptions about people and unintentionally reinforces dominant norms around gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ability and disability, age, and more.

Inclusive language is not the same as being politically correct. Political correctness is focused on not offending, whereas inclusive language is focused on honoring people’s identities. While both inclusive language and political correctness certainly posit that there are certain things you should not say, political correctness often creates barriers that prevent people from engaging. On the other hand, inclusive language allows for more flexibility and connectedness. It is focused on education, dialogue, and naming people in accordance with their personal identities.

Inclusive language is crucial to marketing because it allows marketers to speak to a diverse audience and broaden their reach and transfer their message to more people. It’s important to be conscious of who your audience is and understand how to make people feel included. Part of communicating more effectively with a diverse audience is beginning to understand your own biases (we all have them!) and how your experiences and values shape the lens through which you view our world. We cannot assume that others share our viewpoint.  

Just a few decades ago, most companies centered their marketing efforts around a prototypical consumer: a caucasian, heterosexual, middle-class, white-collar Christian male, since they represented the majority of the consumer market. Today, however, the consumer market is decidedly different. It is increasingly more diverse, with different beliefs, habits, preferences, and ideals. Smart marketers have adapted to be more attentive, with a focus on diversity marketing. 

As such, inclusive language is crucial to not offending or alienating prospective consumers. Below, you can find the six key rules of inclusive language that you can follow to expand your market reach.

1. Put people first. Focus on the person, not their characteristics. For example, instead of saying, “Millennial salesgirl,” say “salesperson who is female and identifies as a Millennial.” People are more than their descriptors, and putting people first maintains the individual as the essential element.

Even though the phrase “my salesperson who is female and identifies as a Millennial” is preferable it is important to note that you should only mention characteristics like gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial group, or ability when it is relevant to the discussion. Does the gender of your coworker make a difference to the conversation? Does it matter that she is a younger professional? If not, simply saying “my coworker” will do.

2. Use universal phrases. Idioms, industry jargon, and acronyms can exclude those who may not have specialized knowledge of a particular subject and impede effective communication. There may even be words and phrases that don’t translate well between the multiple generations in the workplace. For example, exclaiming “That’s sick!” might resonate with Gen Z and millennials, but not with Gen X or baby boomers. On the other hand, saying, “Barking up the wrong tree,” might resonate with baby boomers, but not the others. Alternatives would include “That’s great!” and “That’s not correct.” Be aware of these expressions in your marketing materials.

3. Recognize the impact of mental health language. Bipolar, PTSD, OCD, and ADD are real mental health diagnoses. Using these terms to describe everyday behaviors trivializes the impact of someone’s real, lived experiences with a mental disorder. For example, your coworker who is feeling grumpy today is not bipolar; they might simply be in a bad mood. 

There are also many derogatory terms that stem from the context of mental health, like schizo, paranoid, or psycho. These should never be used to joke, mock, or offend.

4. Use gender-neutral language. Using the word “guys” to address all people is gendered language that can insinuate men are the preferred gender at your organization. Instead, inclusive words such as everyone, team, or you all should be used. Or, if you’re from the south, y’all is a great option!

Using words that encompass all genders rather than those that include only two genders is also preferred. For example, use children instead of boys and girls, or siblings instead of brothers and sisters. This is important in order to encompass those who may not identify with the gender binary or with any gender whatsoever.

5. Be thoughtful about the imagery you use. For example, words like black, dark, and blind are often used symbolically to express negative concepts (i.e. a dark day in history). However, these terms can be offensive to various groups and should be avoided when possible. There are many alternatives and ways to diversify our use of certain symbolism. 

Another example is the use of blonde to refer to someone or something as stupid. This insinuates that all blonde people are stupid, which we know is not true. Try to better understand why you choose the descriptors you do and reflect on known alternatives.

6. Ask if you aren’t sure. As I mentioned in the introduction, inclusive language aims to name people in accordance with their identities. So, if you aren’t sure how someone identifies, ask! Taking the time to find out how a person self-identifies rather than making assumptions is beneficial in communication. Most people are happy to walk you through language that makes them feel properly acknowledged and respected. 

Inclusive language may initially seem complex and overwhelming. Especially when you get into the details and realize how many common words and phrases have discriminatory backgrounds. However, it truly comes down to just one thing; use the names and phrases that a person uses to self-identify. It’s that simple. Inclusive language is all about making others feel heard, honored, and respected.

To learn more about inclusive language, read The Diversity Movement’s latest white paper, Say This, Not That: Activating Workplace Diversity Through Inclusive Language Practice!

Kaela Kovach-Galton is a curriculum and programming manager for The Diversity Movement.

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