This is an adapted version of a talk I gave at AlterConf in Melbourne a few weeks ago. AlterConf is a travelling conference that gives representation to marginalised voices in the tech and gaming industries, and which offers an incredible opportunity to hear from diverse perspectives.
Language is one of our most powerful tools. It shifts and adapts, and is often reflective of our society’s values at any given time – or perhaps those of the societies that came before us.
From a very early age, we learn and normalise terms and phrases that exclude marginalised people, and reinforce the power structures that govern us unequally. Often we don’t learn about the damaging impact of these words until we are much older, and sometimes we don’t learn about it at all.
Consequently, harmful language is often prevalent in the workplace, where it can be particularly difficult to identify and challenge.
This article will identify some of the ways in which our language can impact others. It will also encourage readers to work towards being more inclusive in their own language use, and feel empowered to call out harmful language when they encounter it.
There’s a content warning in this article for ableist, homophobic, heteronormative and sexist language, which may be upsetting or triggering for some users. These types of language will be used solely as examples for the purposes of discussion.
When I was a kid, my sister and I didn’t always get along. Sometimes she would call me names, and it would upset me. My dad tried to help me out by sharing his version of the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I tried to take this on board, but it didn’t seem to matter what I did; it was her words that would do the hurting.
This taught me early in life that our words have power. In fact, in a society where you’re not actually meant to break anyone’s bones with sticks and stones, our language can be our most powerful everyday weapon. It shifts and adapts to reflect the norms and values of our society.
One of the darker powers of our language is its ability to make others feel excluded: to make them feel like they don’t belong somewhere, or that they’re not part of a group. This impacts people in schools, workplaces and, in everyday life. And often we aren’t even aware that the language we use is harmful. But, it can also be used to make others feel included, and to prevent harm.
What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language positively reflects and respects the diversity of our society. This means avoiding words or phrases that marginalise or exclude individuals and groups. Consciously or unconsciously, our language has the power to create and reinforce bias and negative stereotypes. We want to use inclusive language to challenge existing norms that are outdated or offensive, and to shape a better society for the future.
The best way to use inclusive language is to avoid using exclusive language, which can be a bit of a challenge to get your head around, as it’s used heavily in both social and professional environments. Using inclusive language usually means firstly identifying exclusive language, then unlearning that language, then replacing it with something that is more inclusive.
Sounds complex, right?
Well, it’s not really. Let’s unpack it further through some examples of exclusive language.
Have you used the phrase “that’s crazy!” in the last week? What about saying something is dumb, or lame?
I’ve heard all these words and terms floating around. I hear them on most days. Usually at work, too. These are normal, everyday phrases, right?
Sure, they might seem normal to most of us. But just because we learned them when we were kids, or we’ve heard a bunch of other people say them, doesn’t mean they’re okay to use. We learn things growing up, cool slang or just random phrases, which become completely normalised to us, but have a different, damaging meaning behind them.
Terms like “crazy”, “dumb” or “lame” fall within the category of ableist language, which refers to language that is alienating to the enormous numbers of people in our society with mental illness, or physical or intellectual disabilities. Other really common examples are “insane”, “idiot”, “stupid”, and “moron”. These words have roots as medical diagnostic terms, but rapidly became used more frequently as insults. Each takes the lived experiences of someone who is already marginalised by our society, due to their individual characteristics or circumstances, and uses it to criticise, or describe something negatively. Which makes people feel excluded.
Another example is sexist language. Terms like “man up” or “stop being a princess”.
Telling someone to “man up” and be tougher or stronger spreads toxic masculinity. Calling someone a “princess” or a “little girl” if they’re upset about something furthers this gendered stereotyping by identifying women as weak, irrational and overemotional. Sexist language is so deeply ingrained in our vernacular, and it harms people of all genders.
There’s also homophobic and heteronormative language. People who yell “that’s gay!” if something displeases them, assigning negativity to being gay. Telling someone that “all the boys” will be after their daughter when she gets older. Making the assumption firstly that gender is a binary state, and that each of these binary genders will by default be attracted to the other. Heteronormative language pushes heterosexuality as a standard and marginalises anyone who doesn’t identify as heterosexual, who often already experience severe disadvantages within our society.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the types of exclusive language we use; it’s just a starting point for discussion. There are many great resources online that engage with examples of exclusive language in much more detail. These can be uncovered with an “inclusive language” Google search.
So, what can we do?
All these exclusive terms float around the workplace. They’re used by people of all genders, all backgrounds. There are cases where people who fall within one marginalised group, and who champion its inclusion, will turn around and use terms that are exclusive towards other marginalised groups.
Identifying exclusive language in both yourself and others is hard, and changing it within yourself and challenging it in others can be even harder.
That said, while identifying, changing and challenging exclusive language can be some effort, this effort isn’t comparable to the difficulties experienced by people who are systematically excluded by a society that doesn’t allow for diversity. It’s much easier for me to do that Google search on “exclusive language”, or to spend a few hours writing an article like this, or to speak up when a colleague says something harmful, than it is for people to feel like they simply don’t belong in their own workplace.
And, in a selfish sense, it’s a rewarding effort for me too. Because I know that just by speaking up, I’m using my privilege for good, I’m using my loud voice to try and make more space for people who are afforded less space by our social structures.
Change your own language
The first step, if you’ve learned to identify exclusive language, is to simply stop using it. Use inclusive terms instead. The more you hear something, the more normal it becomes, right? That’s how exclusive terms become so accepted. It’s your chance now to normalise inclusive language instead. Look for alternative terms to what you’ve been saying.
It can take a little while for it to feel natural – instead of calling someone an idiot, just say they’re being annoying, or they don’t know what they’re on about. Whilst it may not roll off the tongue quite as easily at first, it will quite quickly just become your default response when someone is irritating you or doing something unreasonable.
Call it out in others
Once you’ve got a good grasp on your own language, it’s time for you to more actively try and change others’ language to be more inclusive.
This can be scary. Other people can be scary. But they can also be wonderful, and if you could do it, then they can.
People are likely to respond defensively at first when you call out what they’ve said, as they might think you are telling them that they’re a bad person. It’s best to try and be clear that it’s specifically what they’ve said which is problematic, which is great for them because all they have to do is change their language, not their whole personality.
It can be reframed as an opportunity rather than a criticism. It’s an opportunity to make a more inclusive workplace, with happier and more productive staff, simply by changing some words. Let them know that we are all learning, and we probably all will be, which is actually a really good thing. We don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to be open to changing what we view as normal or standard and adapting what we say to improve the environment we work in.
I’ve identified three main techniques that can be useful for calling out. I’m going to use my favourite least-favourite term, “guys”, as to illustrate these techniques.
“Hi Guys”: A case study
Because I work in tech, I work with a lot of men. Just this fact alone – that there are more men than any other gender – makes me feel a little bit like I don’t quite belong. So when someone says “the guys had a look at it”, where “the guys” refers to a group of people including myself, it really reinforces the fact that I’m not seen as the norm in my work environment. Or if someone says “the guys took the client out for lunch”, where “the guys” is talking about an all-men group of partners, it reminds me that nobody in a senior position is like me, and it makes it harder for me to imagine being in that position.
This has a snowballing negative impact on my career. And it can already be a bit tough being a woman of colour trying to pursue a successful career in tech, so I don’t want the words I hear every day to make everything a little bit harder.
“Hi guys” might seem like such an incongruous phrase, but that’s almost the point – I hear it so many times, every single day. If you add it to terms like “chairman”, “businessman” and even “mankind”, there’s a pretty big portfolio of words that exclude women from professional spheres, or even just being a person.
1. Offer alternatives
Hopefully by now you’ll have a few of your own alternatives to exclusive terms that you use. It’s time to share them.
If you give people inclusive alternatives to what they are saying, they will probably be more likely to use them. If you just say “what you said is bad” and leave it at that, they might reconsider their words, but not really know how to follow through with a change in behaviour. Providing alternatives lets them know that there’s a problem with their language, and also gives them something to do about it.
How many times has someone tried to compliment women by saying they’re “one of the guys”, like being a guy is the pinnacle of achievement as a woman?
My favourite alternatives to “hi guys” are “hi team”, “hi folks”, “hello friends”, or simply “hi, everyone.”
The key to offering up good alternatives is to remove whichever element of the language that focusses on a particular characteristic of a group or individual, which can exclude them. In this case, it’s the gendered element. You want to make it a term that addresses people, not specifically men or another gender.
2. Flip it with humour
Having said that, there is one use for actively addressing a particular characteristic – and that’s to flip someone’s language around to illustrate how ridiculous it can be. There’s a twitter account called @manwhohasitall, which does this very well.
This account tweets advice for working dads from an alternate scenario in which women sit at the top of the privilege food chain, instead of men. One of my favourites is:
How many times has someone tried to compliment women by saying they’re “one of the guys”, like being a guy is the pinnacle of achievement as a woman? Flipping terms helps to illustrate how common gendered language is, which typically excludes anyone who doesn’t identify as a man from many workspaces. If someone insists that “hi guys” is not a gendered term, use “hi girls” next time. Say “oh, I’ll just get the gals to look at it,” regardless of who is being addressed.
I want to reiterate that these should not be offered as viable alternatives to “hi guys” (as an actual alternative should remove the gender focus), but just to be used as a way of illustrating that sometimes our language is ridiculous and should be changed. If someone says something is “insanely good”, tell them it’s “sanely good”. If they tell you “you’re the man”, tell them “you’re the woman”. Hopefully it will gently help them to understand what it’s like from your perspective.
There’s a power in humour, as there’s a power in our words, and hopefully together they can have a positive impact.
3. Just stop responding
I see this one as a bit of a last resort. I understand that just ignoring someone might not even be an option in the workplace. It also can depend on who is persistently using exclusive language, despite you having tried to offer alternatives and flip it to illustrate the problem with the language. Use this technique sparingly, and not at the cost of your career.
But, in the end, if someone is addressing you with a term that excludes you, they’re not really addressing you. And in that sense, if you’re not being included, then you don’t have to respond.
Remember to look out for yourself.
Sometimes, it’s not worth the emotional labour to call out others. Whilst I said earlier that it’s important to highlight that there’s an issue with someone’s language, and not the person themselves, the fact remains that some people actually are problematic, and it will take more than an argument about their language to change them. Don’t put too much of a drain on yourself trying to change someone who is completely resistant to changing.
It can be tiring trying to make your own language more inclusive, and it can be difficult to invest the effort in trying to make other people’s language more inclusive. But, if you’ve got the energy for it, you can have enormous positive impact and really help to make your workplace a more welcoming, inclusive place that supports diversity.
Sometimes you’ll get called out too, which, like I said before, is a great opportunity to learn and improve yourself. Apologise and be accountable. Take responsibility for what you’ve said, try to comprehend why you’ve had a negative impact and take what you’ve learned on board for the future. Use this opportunity to help you engage more deeply with your language.
Understand how powerful your words can be, and use them to drive inclusion.