“Now we can't say anything!” - How Inclusive Language ACTUALLY Works

Dominika Dudek

How inclusive language really works

Have you ever received an email that starts with "Dear Sir/Madam?" Have you seen "Looking for Java Developer" on job boards with a photo of a 25-30-year-old man coding on his laptop? Or heard "Hey Guys" at the beginning of a meeting?

I am not a language expert, but for some time I have been observing my habits, how I address my colleagues, talk about less dominant groups, and what words I use to comment on or create social media content. I look at how we communicate among friends, at work, in the media, and what images accompany it.

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What I'm sure of is that language is dynamic and changes over time to reflect socio-cultural shifts. It also shapes our reality. Our way of seeing the world depends on the words we use. The effect we want to achieve depends on our selection. With words, we can hurt and offend, but words can also make us happy or appreciated.

I am fortunate enough to work in an environment where we can all promote equality and respect for diversity in different ways. Only in an inclusive environment that accepts, respects, and values ​​diversity can people truly fulfill themselves. A healthy work atmosphere can start with inclusive language. Thanks to the language we use, we can make sure that no one feels excluded or unwelcome.

Linguistic research proves that what we say is not only a reflection of reality but also a tool for creating it - this is a huge field for language activism. In press texts, company communication, and everyday language, it is possible to correct inequalities and exclude the mechanism of discrimination against others.

What Is Inclusive Language?

Inclusive language is intentionally egalitarian word choice that avoids expressions that show bias or prejudice. Additionally, inclusive language combats terminology that is elitist, racist, sexist, etc. This includes avoiding words and phrases that reinforce outdated cultural norms, standards, or expectations. 

The workplace brings together many people from different walks of life. People of different genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and abilities. Effective communication prioritizes inclusion, celebrates, embraces, and supports the identities of these diverse groups.

Why Does Inclusive Language Matter?

When you use inclusive language, you: 

  • Invite a more diverse group of people to participate in dialogue with you (for example during theteam/company meeting or office/online integration)
  • Create and support representation for people who may need it
  • Express respect by validating the existence ofall 
  • Promote equity and equality 
  • Express your values and attract like-minded people
  • Set an example for other people

When to Use Inclusive Language?

In general - ALL THE TIME! There are many opportunities to use inclusive language, especially when referring to personal identity or the identity of socially or culturally distinct groups. Some examples are: aging, race, ethnicity, immigration status, mental attributes, language proficiency, ability, sex and sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity. 

Using inclusive language can be a challenge, so I wanted to share some of the most important principles that can be a good start:

  • Identity is personal:Every individual has the right to describe themselves as they wish. 
  • Respect:Not everyone wants to share their identity. If you are leading a group or setting the stage in a conversation, create space for people to show up as they are to the extent that they wish to.
  • Ask:When interacting with people for the first time, describe your intention to use respectful language and ask, “How do you wish for me to refer to you?” 
  • Be specific: We often hide behind vague words or generalizations when we are uncomfortable, such as using the word “diverse” to refer to people who are not white and heterosexual. Try to be more specific. 

Where to Start With Inclusive Language at the Workplace?

  1. Check what language your job advertisements are written in and what illustrations accompany them - Job advertisements should contain neutral words and phrases that do not indicate, for example, the gender of the candidate. By avoiding phrases such as "young dynamic team", you can prevent applicants over a specific age from applying to you. By building your communication on Social Media based mainly on photos and reports from crazy integrations, you can also show an organization in which people in the role of parents will not feel well and be included in the organizational culture. (Write your Ideal Job Description)
  2. Consider adding your pronouns to your email signature to normalize the discussion around gender and pronouns - You can also do it on your communication channels such as Slack and Linkedin profiles.
  3. Ask how someone wants to be referred to - This can be both in the context of pronouns and also of names/nicknames. This is a very good practice at the stage of the first contact with the candidate or later in the onboarding process. When we're not sure how to pronounce someone's name, say it and ask them to pronounce it.
  4. Give context - this is a very important rule when introducing a new employee to the workplace. Each company has internal sayings, uses abbreviations or slang. It is natural that groups of friends and teams create their own internal language. However, do not assume that a new person who joins our team will understand everything. Introduce the person to your jargon and give context to where he came from.
  5. Remember to switch - In Monterail, a great number of people speak Polish, but there are also many employees who do not speak Polish. While we remember to create documents, official communication, and the one on Slack's open channels in English, it is harder for us to remember about inclusive language when we conduct a conversation, e.g. in an office kitchen, or during integration. It is important to take this into account also in less formal spaces. Advice: Add information on your profile on Slack / Teams or other communicators in which languages ​​you speak.
  6. Learn from others and be open to feedback - It's obvious that you don't know everything and probably you'll make some mistakes. Ask, learn from others, read, react to feedback or needs that arise in your work environment.

Inclusive Language Is Not About Political Correctness, but About Empathy and Caring for Others

Going back to the "Hey Guys" mentioned at the beginning ... you're not a bad colleague if you're comfortable with or use the phrase "guys". Of course, there are larger issues, that feminists need to combat -, the gender gap, sexism, LGBTQ + rights, and the general reprogramming of most people's minds when it comes to the valuation of women in society and the workplace.

But when you stop paying attention to the visibility of individuals, you can lead to their exclusion and further to the loss of respect and equality.

I just want you to know you are one small step away from making a more conscious effort to dismantle (in case of using “hey guys”) the patriarchy. Instead of this, you can try using “Hey all”, “Hey everyone” or just simply - HEY! 

As I wrote at the beginning, language is not static, it changes and evolves - as social and political climates shift, so must the language. It is a powerful tool of control, but it is an even more powerful tool for change. What was acceptable even a few years ago may no longer be appropriate. Language changes all the time but there is still value in keeping up to date and using the appropriate language for the times.

What if you make a mistake? Accept that you are human and that it’s okay to make mistakes. If you do make a mistake, apologize, correct/change what you have said, learn from the mistake, and move on. We are all in the process of learning - all the time.

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Dominika Dudek avatar
Dominika Dudek