Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace

By: Emma Hickey

There’s a reason all kindergarten classes cover the lesson “think before you speak.” Words matter. They frame how we see the world and they carry great weight. In all facets of life, including in the workplace, it’s important to use words that are inclusive rather than exclusive. The Australian government concisely defines inclusive language as, “language that is free from words, phrases or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. It is also language that does not deliberately or inadvertently exclude people from being seen as part of a group.” Some of the most common phrases and word choices in American English are exclusive, meaning we have to put extra thought into choosing our words in order to be inclusive. Language that divides and excludes is deeply embedded in our vocabulary and striving to speak more inclusively means interrogating what we say and why we say it. It takes effort, but it’s worthwhile to help make our workplace—and our world—more inclusive.

There are many words we should eliminate from our vocabulary in order to be a more welcoming community, but how can we possibly know what those words are? The Unitarian Universalist Association describes the thought process behind identifying those words as follow:

Increasing the inclusiveness 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/disability, age, and other identities and experiences.

There are two helpful rules to keep in mind that will help you weed out these words from your vocabulary—one is a Do and one is a Don’t. Do make others feel seen and reflected in your words. For example, if you’re speaking to a group made up of all genders, address the crowd as “folks,” “y’all,” or “you all,” but not as “guys,” because that word doesn’t reflect every member of the group. If you’re still not sure what to call a group of people, Berkeley designer Shawna Hein created a handy flowchart to answer that very question.

The other rule to keep in mind is the don’t—don’t make assumptions about others. For example, when a colleague references their significant other, don’t assume the gender of that person. When introduced to a person, don’t assume their pronouns. Use language that doesn’t make assumptions about family structure and identity but rather recognizes diverse family structures and diverse identities.

Another tip to keep in mind when striving to use inclusive language, specifically at work, is to avoid idioms. We as a people love idioms. They give our speech texture and help convey complex ideas for which there are no concise words. Some researchers even suggest that the use of idioms is evidence that “humans aren't meant to function on only a literal, logical basis.” Idioms reflect the culture of the language and every idiom has an origin story. In the English language, many of those origin stories are based in ableism, like “the blind leading the blind,” racism, like “he’s a slave driver,” and sexism, like “man up,” and “like a girl.”

Some idioms are obviously exclusive when given a moment of thought, like the phrase “the lowest man on the totem pole,” but not all exclusive idioms are immediately self evident without knowing their history. As an example, “the peanut gallery” refers to the section of a segregated vaudeville theater where black audience members had to sit. The layman probably doesn’t know enough about the 19th century vaudeville scene to be familiar with the history of the phrase, but it’s a racist idiom whether the person using it knows its origin or not. Idioms also create distance between the people who understand them and the people who don’t. Common examples of this are sports-based idioms and biblical-based idioms. Idioms like this exclude people who don’t have the necessary context, and avoiding them will help keep your language accessible to everyone.

Putting people first is also a good tip when aiming to speak with as much inclusivity as possible. Instead of saying “disabled people,” say “people with disabilities.” Instead of saying “female engineer,” say “woman on the engineering team.” Instead of saying “transgenders,” say “transgender people.” Use language that keeps the individual at the forefront and doesn’t reduce their identity to a single trait. People are more complex than the single adjective we may instinctively want to use to describe them. Adjectives more broadly are also a good area to monitor for exclusive language. Avoid describing stories as “crazy,” situations as “insane,” and people as “psychotic,” because these are stigmatizing terms that belittle mental health issues. The same goes for casually referring to yourself as “OCD,” “bipolar,” or “schizophrenic.” There are so many words in the English language that we can use instead to more precisely—and inclusively—describe things. We just have to put a little more thought into it.  

Try as hard as we might to use inclusive language at work and in our lives, we won’t always do it perfectly. There will be times when we make mistakes, and that’s ok, as long as we learn. There will be times when we’re not sure what to say, and that’s ok, too, as long as we ask. All we can do is stay aware of using open language and strive for maximum inclusivity, even if we fall short sometimes. Moving towards more inclusive language requires us to take a look at ourselves and identify the unconscious biases we hold with regards to what’s “normal,” then going a step further to use language that encompasses all experiences and identities. Applying just a modicum more effort on our part when we choose our words goes a long way towards creating a welcoming environment for all.  


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