Inclusive Language in Four Easy Steps

Today’s workforce is diverse. Take a look at the country’s most successful businesses, and it’s unlikely you’ll find cookie-cutter employees.

People across most organizations come in all shapes and sizes, with a range of beliefs and backgrounds. So why does our communication often fail to reflect that?

Inclusive language is essential to any high-functioning workplace. Without it, managers are shouting into an echo chamber, and perpetuating a biased office culture.

Adopting a new communication style is easier than it may seem, if you start with four basic steps.

Step one: Edit your assumptions

Whether you’re drafting an e-mail message or preparing a keynote speech, it’s important to carefully consider the people you’re communicating with.

“Ask yourself about the unconscious assumptions you’re making about your audience,” says Ebonye Gussine Wilkins, a social justice writer and editor. “Are you making assumptions about gender, race, or religion? Are you speculating that people of a certain profession are all one gender or race?”

Rework anything that ignores diversity or might alienate individuals or groups. Be sensitive to differences. When in doubt about a seemingly innocuous joke or turn of phrase, err on the side of caution.

Ask yourself about the unconscious assumptions you’re making about your audience.” — Ebonye Gussine Wilkins, social justice writer and editor.

After all, it’s unlikely you’d be called out for being too considerate. But oblivious communication is a quick way to lose the ear of someone who feels like you’re not truly talking to them—or worse, who is hurt by your message.

Step two: Play it safe with pronouns

Your high school English teacher might cringe, but there’s an increasingly strong case being made for the singular “they.” In fact, it’s so strong that the American Dialect Society (ADS) made the pronoun its 2015 Word of the Year.

“In [2015], new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular ‘they’ has become a particularly significant element of that conversation,” Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society and a Wall Street Journal columnist, said the same year.

The ADS points out that editors are increasingly using the singular “they” in a generic fashion. But that’s nothing new; Chaucer and Shakespeare applied the same usage.

Phase out gender-specific “he” and “she,” unless you know unequivocally that your audience identifies as one or the other. Many people are adding their preferred pronouns to public profiles and e-mail signatures to eliminate confusion (and, in some cases, to normalize gender identities and conversations about them).

Don’t think it matters? According to the Linguistic Society of America, “Research shows that a masculine pronoun or terms marked for masculine gender, such as ‘man,’ [‘mankind,’ or ‘Congressman’] are overwhelmingly interpreted as male, even when users intend them to be understood more generally.” The Harvard Kennedy School has evidence to back up the claim.

Step three: Ditch ableist language

It’s become rather common to use descriptive words like “crazy,” “dumb,” or “lame” in the workplace. But according to Ashley Bischoff, a copyeditor who advocates for inclusive language, “words that denigrate in one usage invariably leach those connotations into their other usages.”

In addition to reinforcing stereotypes about mental health conditions and physical disability, careless words can shame the person on the receiving end of your message—no matter your intention.

Words that denigrate in one usage invariably leach those connotations into their other usages.” — Ashley Bischoff, copyeditor who advocates for inclusive language.

Some people argue that adjectives like “insane” have changed meaning over time. But look such a word up in a dictionary, and often you’ll find that the original definition is the only entry. Even when definitions have evolved in pop culture, says Bischoff, “the power of words lies in how they’re received.”

With 171,476 words in the English language, there’s no shortage of more descriptive, less damaging alternatives.

Step four: Ignore criticism

Some people will resist a call for more inclusive language in the workplace. And old habits die hard—especially if higher-ups are set in traditional ways.

“Change is hard for everyone, and I understand that ruffling feathers can be a concern,” says Gussine Wilkins. “As we move toward a more inclusive society, there will be different kinds of people all the way up the chain. You don’t know whom you’ll meet, so inclusive language is best!”

And if you do face criticism for slipping the singular “they” into a speech or editing “crazy” from a memo, Gussine Wilkins suggests a direct response.

“As we move toward a more inclusive society, there will be different kinds of people all the way up the chain. You don’t know whom you’ll meet, so inclusive language is best!” — Ebonye Gussine Wilkins

“If questioned, you can always say ‘this person prefers this pronoun’ or ‘I was informed that this was ableist or insensitive, so I’m respecting the correction or information." In any business, respect is paramount, and you’ll be setting the example for better and more inclusive communication.”

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