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6 research-backed inclusive language do’s and don’ts

February 4, 2024
Diversity & Inclusion

Language is a powerful tool that shapes our thoughts, beliefs and interactions. Embracing inclusive language is not just a matter of political correctness; it’s about fostering a culture of respect, understanding and equality. Inclusive language is a way of communicating that avoids expressions and words that may be considered discriminatory or exclusive. It aims to embrace diversity and promote a sense of belonging for all individuals, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, ability or any other characteristic.

The use of inclusive language reflects a commitment to recognizing and valuing the differences that are essential for diversity, equity and inclusion to thrive. Inclusive language helps us be clear with our communication. For instance, using sports references or idioms that are common to one culture might be completely lost in translation to another culture. The phrases “rock star” or “knock it out of the park” may make sense to some employees, yet not others.

Six Principles of Inclusive Language
Dr. Suzanne Wertheim, author of the book The Inclusive Language Field Guide, shared the six principles of inclusive language in our interview. These essentially provide a litmus test to ensure words and phrases are inclusive.

Reflect reality
Show respect
Draw people in
Incorporate other perspectives
Prevent erasure
Recognize pain points

If you are questioning a phrase’s or word’s inclusivity, run it through these filters, asking yourself these questions:

Does it make sense?
Does it show respect to all?
Does it get people excited about the message?
Does it incorporate diverse perspectives?
Does it prevent identity dismissal?
Does it recognize challenges authentically?

If a word or phrase doesn’t pass one of these key questions, it is likely problematic. It doesn’t mean if someone says the phrase that they are problematic; it simply means that their language reflects an opportunity to be more inclusive.

Inclusive Words
Although there is no comprehensive diversity dictionary, and certainly our vocabulary is constantly changing, there are some words that tend to be more inclusive than others. Consider these a starting point:

  • “Dominant group” instead of “majority group” to describe the group that generally holds the largest amount of power in society and in workplaces (i.e., white, straight, male, cisgender, non-disabled)
  • “Historically marginalized group” instead of “minority/ies” to identity groups that fall outside of the majority group by one or more factors (non-white, LGBTQ+, female, gender non-binary, persons with disabilities)
  • “You all” or “everyone” instead of “you guys” to describe mixed-gender groups
  • “They” instead of “he” or “she” to avoid misgendering or painting gender as binary
  • “Primary” instead of “master” to stop perpetuating words used in slavery
  • “Wild” instead of “crazy” or “insane” to help be inclusive to folks with mental-health issues

It is worth noting that an individual cannot be diverse; only a group can experience diversity. Therefore, calling someone “diverse” is incorrect. Instead, calling someone “from a diverse group” would be more accurate.

Dr. Wertheim recommends starting with one word or phrase and building on it over time. Rather than trying to shift all of your language at once, practice one at a time. Try practicing with your pet or friends if you don’t feel comfortable. The more you practice, the more you learn. When people see you are trying, they are more likely to give you grace when you make mistakes. Remember, we are all allies in training, and inclusive language is shifting over time. The norms of language 20 years ago are far different from today. The same will likely be true in the future.

Inclusive language is a powerful tool for creating a more compassionate and understanding world. By consciously choosing words that embrace diversity and respect the identities of all individuals, we contribute to building a society where everyone feels seen, heard and valued. It’s a small but impactful step toward creating a more inclusive and harmonious future. Let us celebrate the richness of our differences and strive for a world where inclusive language is the norm rather than the exception.

by Julie Kratz


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