Inclusive Communication Builds Both People and Profits
Feb 26, 2023
We live in an age of great sensitivity to language--some might even say hyper-sensitivity. While being too "politically correct" might cause some people to roll their eyes, you ignore individual sensitivities at your peril. Words referring to gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental health, gender identity, and the like have the potential to make some people feel excluded--and that is the last thing we should want to do.
Everyone wants to feel included and respected. Using language inclusively has proven benefits to morale and competitive advantage. And companies are paying increased attention to the importance of using inclusive language--terms and pronouns that show respect to all and do not stereotype certain groups--in all printed or digital materials.
Communicating inclusively is more than a good idea: It promotes engagement, reduces stress, improves morale, and contributes to the sparking of creative ideas. A 2017 McKinsey report, Delivering Through Diversity, showed that ethnic and cultural diversity correlated with a statistically significant 33 percent likelihood of outperformance on EBIT margin. How do inclusive communicators draw in their readers and keep them engaged?
Choose your words carefully
No one can write a list of words you can and cannot use because each audience has its own sensitivities. Nevertheless, here are a few principles to remember.
Avoid mentioning gender when it is not relevant. There is no need to write female executive or lady boss. An executive is an executive, regardless of their gender. Similarly, words like chairman can be shortened to the gender-neutral term chair.
Don't make assumptions about gender. Despite the proliferation of woman managers, many people tend to think of managers as men. Sensitize yourself to see the snap judgments you make about which gender or group is likely to work in specific jobs. Then work to overcome your biases.
Avoid gendered or racial slang. In emails and texts, do not write gals or girls when referring to women. The phrase you guys is problematic on many fronts; it is very casual, for one, and it includes women under the masculine word guys. Avoid it. And of course, referring to a group of people as you people is out. The phrase "You people" seems to pit the "other" against you. Similarly, be careful of using boy or boys unless referring to males under the age of 16.
Be cautious about metaphors. Some metaphors can be triggering. Many years ago, I was composing an email to a manager at a large utility company. The woman herself was very large. She had a responsible position and was very busy. I found myself writing, "I know you have a lot on your plate ..." And then, fortunately, I stopped and asked myself whether she might consider the phrase a roundabout comment on her appearance. I quickly changed it to "I know you are very busy." In addition, saying things like, "That's a crazy idea," or "He's so manic!" can be off-putting to those who suffer from mental illness.
Use technical tools. Microsoft has released a helpful guide to avoiding biased language. In addition, Google Drive now includes prompts to reduce gendered language such as policeman for police officer. Grammarly also gives feedback on unnecessarily gendered language. In general, if you are wondering whether it's appropriate to use a word or phrase, don't use it.
As the proverb says, "What comes from the heart, enters the heart." As a business leader, communicating sincerely and authentically will build your audience's trust. Cultivate an attitude of respect for differences of all kinds, and you will find that inclusive language flows more naturally.
Communication is the process of conveying our thoughts and ideas into the minds and hearts of others. When we respect our audience, consider their sensitivities, and use words they feel comfortable with, we can build a company culture in which all team members feel included.