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Understanding the Core Tenets of Inclusive Language

A structured approach to inclusive language in the business setting is becoming increasingly important as a demonstration of understanding towards customers and employees. Inclusive language can be thought of as the subset of languages that promotes inclusivity through the intentional choices of some words over others based on their definition. Inclusive language is not based on any one family of language but rather exists in all languages spoken across the world.

In using inclusive language, people and companies can promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in a subconscious way by shaping people’s perceptions or core understanding of the information they are trying to communicate. For example, while most people think that using “preferred pronouns” as the term to denote an individual’s pronouns is inclusive, it’s actually quite non-inclusive or exclusive language. By using the term “preferred”, the audience at a subconscious level is understanding the message to also say if someone uses pronouns that are different from what one would assume, those pronouns are a choice or preferred as opposed to simply being their actual pronouns.

Inclusive language is meant to promote diversity, convey respect to all communities and is sensitive to the differences between communities and cultures. Inclusive language rests upon three core tenants:

  1. People-first grammar
  2. Nuanced language
  3. Continuous evolution

People-First Grammar

The first tenet of inclusive language is people-first grammar. Put simply, people-first grammar is a sentence structure that puts people first in the sentence and then follows with their characteristics. People-first language centers the individual as a holistic entity as opposed to a sum of their parts (i.e., characteristics or identities).

For example, using people-first language looks like “that person with a disability” instead of saying “that disabled person”. The importance or magnitude of the disability to a person’s identity is much lower in the first option. The concept first originated from people in the disability community wanting to center language surrounding the individual on their internal characteristics as opposed to language constantly highlighting the disability itself. This concept has become widely accepted and appreciated within the disability community and its allies, and can be applied to so many other communities as well.

Using people-first inclusive language for other communities or identities like sexual orientation, gender identity, race, or religion can be a great step to promote inclusivity for all and even help people shift away from mentally categorizing and boxing others based on certain identities. Another side to people-first language is also not mentioning characteristics unless they are relevant to the topic or conversation at hand. If someone’s disability or another identity is not pertinent to the topic, there’s no need to include that characteristic in the sentence.

Understanding Nuance in Inclusive Language

Understanding and demonstrating respect for the nuance of inclusive language is the second tenet.  Inclusive language is not clearly defined but is rather guided by the intent of being as inclusive as possible with one’s current knowledge. Thus, well-intentioned adopters of inclusive language know that mistakes are inevitable because words that may not seem offensive or exclusive to some, will seem so to others.

We can only learn from those mistakes and continue. For example, the word “queer” has historically been used as an offensive slur against people of the LGBTQ+ community but over the last decade or two, the LGBTQ+ community has been reclaiming the word. Now you can see the term “queer” as a substitute for “LGBTQ+” in editorials, academic research, and mainstream media.

However, older generations in the LGBTQ+ community still prefer that the term not be used because of the historical meaning or personal experience they’ve had with the word “queer”. This is one case of many where certain people find a term inclusive and others do not. In this situation, if the language choice is to be used, it should only be used with people that the speakers explicitly know find this language acceptable and inclusive.

Inclusive Language Requires Continuous Evaluation and Evolution

Just as language and vernacular is constantly morphing and shifting, our repository of inclusive words to use and exclusive words to avoid is always growing and changing. This third tenet of inclusive language reflects the nature of our modern society. As awareness of various social experiences and causes increase, our language choices should grow and reflect that as well.

Words, also, can take on different meanings over time and inclusive language must reflect those changed meanings whether that additional definition is a positive or negative one. Because language itself is very dynamic, practitioners of inclusive language must constantly maintain a growth mindset – mistakes will be made but everyone is constantly learning new language to improve inclusivity. One could even take this a step further and approach inclusive language as a mindset – one that requires humility in the face of mistakes and a deep urge to care for and respect all communities and its people.

For businesses, demonstrating an understanding and appreciation for inclusive language is critical as customers, consumers, and employees have evolved their expectations around diversity, inclusion, and equity. Building an organizational approach to inclusive language requires a steadfast commitment to authenticity and transparency but it’s one that can pay dividends for your people and your business.

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Tags: Diversity + Inclusion, Organizational Effectiveness, Organizational Health