How to use language to foster a stronger, happier, more productive team.
The language we use has a strong influence on how inclusive members of a team feel, and that’s a big part of what DEI is all about. Here’s your quick-start guide to using language that’s appropriate and inclusive.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) aims to make everyone within an environment, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, ability, gender or sexual orientation, feel supported and welcome.
Why is it better to use inclusive language?
Happier staff do better work. According to Deloitte, companies that embrace inclusivity and inclusive language have 22% lower turnover rates, 22% greater productivity, 27% higher profitability AND 39% higher customer satisfaction.
It’s therefore a good idea to ensure that all language used in the workplace – written and spoken; included in internal coms and external marketing – is inclusive and avoids causing offence to certain people or groups.
#1 Avoid certain ways of identifying people
Only use race, gender, gender identity, ability, age, sexual orientation etc to identify people when strictly necessary, otherwise doing so can draw attention to something about someone’s characteristics that might make them feel different or excluded.
#2 Prefer people-first language
People-first language prioritises the individual. This is an especially useful point to remember when talking about people who have disabilities.
For example, it’s better to say ‘a person with a disability’ than ‘a disabled person’. The former implies that the disability is a secondary characteristic rather than a defining one. But as mentioned in #1, it’s best to simply avoid mentioning disability unless relevant or strictly necessary.
There are a few exceptions to this point. The deaf community, for instance, generally prefers the term ‘deaf person’ to ‘person with deafness’. If in doubt, it’s best to ask.
#3 Be wary of connotations
Terms such as ‘sexual preference’ or ‘preferred pronouns’ can be problematic. ‘Preference’ implies choice, and that can create a false impression. It’s best to err on the side of caution and use the terms ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘pronouns’ instead.
#4 Avoid inappropriate references
Try to avoid using terms such as ‘bipolar,’ ‘OCD,’ ‘ADHD’ or ‘ASD’ as metaphors, especially in a jokey context. These are real disabilities and disorders. Using their names to refer to things they aren’t can offend people who have them.
#5 Prefer gender-neutral language
Yes, you may often use language with a specific audience in mind, but pronouns are generally best avoided.
When making a hypothetical point – ‘if he or she went for a walk’, for example – the ‘he or she’ clause is unnecessary, and including it can make non-binary, gender non-conforming or genderqueer folks feel excluded.
When in doubt or when using a pronoun is necessary, ‘they’ is a good choice. It’s gender-neutral and can be used to refer to an individual or a group, so has all bases covered.
#6 Avoid universal phrases
Jargon is often best avoided and it’s a good idea to think before using idioms – not all translate well across cultures.
#7 Avoid using your group as the reference group
Using your group as the reference group can imply it’s the norm and that other groups fall outside that norm. Terms like ‘non-white’, for example, imply that white people are the norm and everyone else, a deviation.
It’s best to take care when saying…
This term is best avoided when speaking to or referencing a group that contains non-male members.
‘Folks’, ‘you all’, ‘everyone’, ‘team’.
If she’s over 18, she’s an adult. And take care when saying ‘ladies’ and ‘gals’, these terms can be patronizing.
These days ‘handicapped’ is considered impolite.
Similarly, when talking about people with disabilities, avoid using terms like ‘afflicted by,’ ‘victim of’, ‘suffers from’, and ‘confined to a wheelchair’.
‘Challenged’, ‘differently abled’, and ‘specially abled’ are best avoided too.
‘Disabled’, ‘person with a disability’.
You might also consider…
- Mentioning pronouns
Including pronouns – he/him, she/her, they/them – in email signatures can help non-binary, transgender and other folk feel more included.
- Trigger warnings
If you’re going to publish content that has the potential to trigger people, it’s a good idea to add a trigger warning to that content. Forewarning people about potentially offensive content can help prevent causing offense.
- Writing for web accessibility
People with certain disabilities can have difficulty navigating online content. We can all help ensure the content we create is accessible. See our designing for accessibility guide for useful tips.
- Keeping up to date
Inclusive language best practice is constantly evolving. Periodic refreshers are a great way to stay up to date. Taking a moment to think about how the language you’re going to use is inclusive often goes a long way, too.
If you’d like a hand with creating inclusive content, get in touch with Sim (he/him): firstname.lastname@example.org