At ROC, we value empathy, and one of the everyday ways we demonstrate empathy as communicators is using inclusive language in the materials we prepare. In recent weeks, several clients have asked us to help them think through how to be more sensitive and empathetic in their language decisions.
Here are some simple do’s and don’t’s to check your writing:
Don’t use slang rooted in racism.
Certain English-language colloquialisms and casual language choices are, at best, casually insensitive or, at worst, rooted in discriminatory beliefs related to skin color, age, class, ability or other issues. “Pow-wow”, “gypped” “grandfathering” and even “peanut gallery” are all examples. Remove them from your everyday business language. (This Business Insider article addresses other colloquialisms rooted in racism.) Take care to avoid using “master-slave” terminology as well.
Do capitalize to recognize populations.
Capitalize the B in Black and Brown when using those terms to describe groups of people, to recognize the shared history and identity among communities. (As the head of the Associated Press wrote in June, “lowercase black is a color, not a person.) For the same reason, thoughtful writers capitalize Indigenous when referring to original inhabitants of a place.
At the same time, know that capitalizing “white” can be problematic – in part, because it is a practice long adopted by certain hate groups, so an uppercase “White” risks subtly legitimizing those beliefs. (Mainstream media have not yet adopted a common style; see how different groups are weighing their decisions.)
Do adopt inclusive pronouns.
Replace “he/she” with “they/them” as a simple way to avoid making assumptions about the gender of your audience. If the grammar of “they/them” still hangs you up referring to an individual – and for many of us writers, it is still a tough call – “pluralize” your sentences instead. “Please forward to him/her” can easily become “please forward to them”, or “please forward to the appropriate person”, for example.
Do address groups the way they ask to be addressed.
While preferences change as insight evolves, show good will and make an effort: Consider People of Color (POC) or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) when referring to people who are not white. Use Latinx, instead of Latino or Latina, to remove gender assumptions.
Refer to LBGTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexual) for maximum identity sensitivity. The “+” refers to anyone who is part of this community but does not identify with one of the specific segments. And be sure to say a person “is” who they say they are, not that they “identify as” their gender or orientation.
Don’t let a condition take the place of personhood.
Avoid referring to people by the condition they face. This means it’s not “the blind” or “the disabled.” It’s “people who are blind,” “people with physical disabilities,” or “people with intellectual disabilities.” When appropriate, acknowledge when descriptors are situational, not permanent: rather than “homeless person”, say “person who is experiencing homelessness.” And if you have some reason to refer to slavery, talk about “enslaved people” rather than “slaves.”
Do be intentional about the images you use.
Stories are told not only through the words you use; they shine in every image you select. Make sure images reflect the totality of your workforce. And remember images are not just stock photography of people’s faces, but animations, icons, graphic illustrations and other representations of people. Choose images that are diverse in gender, relationship, skin color, age, body size and ability, especially when describing certain benefits or policies. Watch out for unintended relationships between captions and photos. Looking for a new source of diverse stock photos? Try TONL, The Gender Spectrum or CreateHER.
These are some of the practices we incorporate with clients who want to make deliberate and sensitive choices in business communications. Reach out and let us know what else you do to make empathetic choices.