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Words Matter: A Quick Reference Guide to Inclusive Language

two young women at work talking
Inclusive language respectfully acknowledges diversity and is sensitive to differences. Everyone deserves to feel included and welcomed.

Words have been weaponized to make marginalized people feel excluded, unsafe and unwelcome. Inclusive language, however, can help people feel seen, safe and valued. At work, it tells staff who they are is welcome.

You see, employees do not present as pod people, shedding any trace of their individuality and identities (notice the plural). Instead, they bring their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, ability and a host of other attributes that make people, well, people.

Inclusive language embraces this diversity, making a profound impact on the workplace.

Why use inclusive language?

The reason is simple: Everyone deserves to feel included and welcomed.

Historically marginalized groups often feel required to muffle parts of themselves to thrive professionally. When employers actively commit to inclusive language, through training, policies and guides, they signal that it is okay for employees to be themselves, increasing engagement, productivity and loyalty.

It also lets staff know their employer values them beyond a transactional relationship.

Of course, inclusive language cannot create a space of belonging all on its own, BUT (and it’s a big one) what it will do is build connections and create safer spaces for everyone.

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language respectfully acknowledges diversity and is sensitive to differences. It’s word choice free of reference to age, gender, sexuality, mental ability, physical ability and other traits not needed for context. Inclusive language omits generalizations, stereotypes, prejudice and negative connotations that intentionally or unintentionally exclude.

To put it another way, inclusive language is choosing words that include everybody relevant to the conversation in the conversation with respect and intention.

For example, when a company applauds their top “salesmen,” they unnecessarily omit females and their contributions from the conversation. A slight shift to “salespeople” celebrates everyone.

Guard against bias

We’ve heard and said some things for so long that we don’t even think about their actual meaning anymore let alone the bias it springs from.

Take the recruiting cliché “best man for the job,” for example. Sure, women would likely be considered for the role too – but that’s not what was said, was it? Overuse of exclusionary language does not remove its offence, hurt or harm.

A lot of our language is rooted in bias. An important step toward inclusive language in the workplace is making staff aware and educating them on the impact of bias that can come in many forms, including:

  • Cultural bias: Interpreting other cultures based on the norms of your own.

  • In-group bias: Giving preferential treatment to people who are part of your group.

  • Affinity bias: Gravitating toward people who are similar to you.

  • Conformity bias: Following the ideas and behaviours of others rather than using independent thought.

  • Gender bias: Judging someone based on their real or perceived gender identity.

  • Confirmation bias: Looking for information that confirms what you already believe to be true, overlooking contradicting evidence.

  • The Availability Heuristic: Relying on examples that come to mind when examining the probability of an occurrence.

  • The Dunning Kruger Effect: Believing something is simple because you don’t know much about it.

Inclusive Language Guide

How to choose inclusive language

Inclusive language is a spectrum with people at all points. The single most important step to using inclusive language is listening and learning – ask people how they want to be addressed and address them that way. Also:

  • Ensure the main message of what you’re trying to communicate includes everyone it applies to.

  • Be specific and accurate. For example, are you addressing Indigenous Peoples or specifically Inuit?

  • Choose neutral language unless you know more detail.

  • Don’t make assumptions based on your personal experience. What you perceive may not reflect the reality of the situation.

Using inclusive language takes commitment and consistency. With a little patience, practice and grace, fluency develops.

Gender: When possible, aim for gender-neutral language, like “chairperson” rather than “chairman.”

Ask the person you are speaking to what pronouns they use. It can be incredibly painful to be misgendered and equally impactful when you take the time to ask. If you don’t know, use the neutral “they/them.”

Invite staff to share their pronouns during introductions, in their email signatures and in other digital spaces like webpages and networking sites. Just avoid making it mandatory as some may not be comfortable sharing for a whole lot of reasons.

Race and ethnicity: Accurately using the often-confused terms of race and ethnicity demonstrates knowledge that creates a welcoming environment. Here’s the difference:

Race is a social construct, meaning it’s something people invented to classify people – usually based on a physical feature like skin colour and mostly used as a tool for oppression. Race includes categories like Asian and White. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is broader and refers to heritage or culture, like Arab or Irish.

Other related words that at not interchangeable, include:

  • Black and African American

  • Hispanic and Latino/a/x/e

  • Indian and Indigenous

Ability: Avoid language that refers to disabilities in a negative connotation. Some prefer people-first language, like “person who is blind,” to describe something a person has instead of making it who they are. Others prefer identity-first language, like “blind person,” to create neutral or positive associations over stigma. Always ask how someone wants to be referenced and go with that.

Also important is avoiding language that assumes everyone has the same mental and physical ability with phrases with “able-bodied” or similar.

Those are the three big buckets, but there’s more to it. It takes time to find and remove common yet hurtful phrases from our vocabulary. Practice makes progress!

What to do when you mess up

You’re not going to get this right 100% of the time. If you do – kudos! Assuming you’re human, however, and therefore prone to mistakes, here is how to make it right when you get it wrong.

  • Acknowledge what you said and that it was wrong.

  • Apologize for the error.

  • Start over, this time using inclusive language.

  • Do better next time.


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