Have you heard any of the following comments lately?
“... You can’t please everyone all of the time…”
“... There’s always someone waiting to take offence…”
“... Political correctness has gone too far…”
“... Something-something snowflakes…”
You hear complaints like these when someone tries to correct another person’s use of language. It might seem like you’re hearing them more often nowadays, but language has always been evolving to make room for those it has previously excluded – and there has always been push back.
Language is a valuable tool for connecting people. It uses content and context to create impact. The problem is that if the content and context only prioritise certain identities, the impact will almost always be the exclusion of everyone else. Inclusive language exists to do the opposite: by neutralising unnecessarily specific content and expanding the context as far as possible, your message is automatically welcoming to a wider audience.
Let’s examine how neutral and inclusive language works and why it matters at all.
Sticks and stones
Let’s start with a handy definition that we’ll stick to throughout this blog. HubSpot summarises inclusive language as language that “avoids biases, slang, or expressions that discriminate against groups of people based on race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Inclusive language allows you to resonate with more audiences by speaking and writing in more impartial ways.”
Inclusive language can be achieved in two main ways: Firstly, by neutralising exclusive/offensive terminology (for example, switching to gender-neutral and race-neutral language) and, secondly, by expanding existing vocabulary (for example, addressing gender-diverse individuals using pronouns beyond the gender binary).
Words are innocuous until they’re wielded with either good or bad intentions. So, while language has been used to communicate and bridge gaps, it has also been instrumental in establishing and maintaining unjust social pecking orders. Put another way, words don’t just describe the unfair world we live in, they shape it.
If we want to change the way the world treats marginalised groups, we have to start with a more empathetic way of talking to and about them.
Cat got your tongue?
So, if evolving language to accommodate more people is a good thing, why all the resistance?
The first thing to consider is that people are already set in the way they communicate and inclusive language requires a fundamental rewiring that some people are unwilling to undergo. The controversial singular “they” for non-binary people or persons whose gender is not immediately known is one example that people write off as awkward and ungrammatical when, in fact, the singular “they” has existed in English since the 14th century.
This is an example of cognitive dissonance. It causes tension within us when we hold two conflicting ideas, so it is easier for our minds to reject the idea that requires us to learn more.
When our established beliefs are challenged with compelling evidence to the contrary, we have a tendency to double down on our original positions instead of accepting new information.
The second thing to consider is that most people are uncomfortable with confronting their implicit biases. Implicit bias is something we all have, that is shaped by our upbringing and colours our perspectives on the world. An example is assuming that only men are into fast cars or that women are inherently motherly.
Implicit biases aren’t always obvious but they can have microaggressive or outright bigoted consequences. So, it’s important for all of us to overcome that initial wave of discomfort and interrogate our personal implicit biases. Here’s a Hidden Bias Test formulated by psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington to help you out.
These phenomena are just two of the most prominent factors that contribute to people resisting inclusive language. When you hear someone say something like, “I’m afraid to speak because I always feel like I might offend someone,” they might be avoiding an implicit bias or trapped by cognitive dissonance. But it isn’t something that they can’t overcome.
A word to the wise
Inclusive language is all about making everyone feel like they belong. When people feel accepted, they respond more positively to messaging, whether it’s at school, work, when consuming media, among friends or in the marketplace.
Language moves forward, not backwards, with every generation and we’re already seeing it happen as millennials and Gen Z grow in influence. In 2021, Instagram introduced a feature that allowed people to add their preferred pronouns to their profiles and it wouldn’t be surprising to see more social networks follow suit.
There’s no questioning of whether or not inclusive language is important. A better question would be: is it important enough for you to evolve with the times? Remember that before you start your next email with “Dear Sir/Madam”. How many readers have you alienated even before you get to your point?
Download our starter guide for inclusive language in marketing below to begin your journey towards more universally welcoming messaging.