Wednesday, June 19, 2024

How Language Can Set the Tone for an Inclusive Culture

inclusive language
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Senior leaders within an organization are custodians of its culture, and setting the right tone from the top when it comes to inclusion can be incredibly powerful. It is key that this ‘tone from the top’ comes from an authentic place, and is sustainable.

In 2018, a Deloitte Millennial Survey showed that there is a very strong correlation between perceptions of workforce diversity and loyalty, so a leader role modeling inclusive behavior can go a long way.  One of the key ways of setting the tone can be through inclusive language. Being able to have open and honest conversations about current topics relating to the barriers your diverse employees may face – and how they can be removed – can cascade an environment of open conversation throughout the organization.


The key to inclusive language is being outspoken, but not speaking over. Although statements of commitment to inclusion can go a long way, it’s crucial to remember that allies should not be the center of the conversation. For example, has somebody in your company’s black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employee resource group recently published an article on Black Lives Matter? Repost it, but credit the source, adding how your organization will pledge to help.

Once you have understood this, the next hurdle you may come across is simply not knowing what to say. The topic of inclusive language is a scary one – and the fear of getting it wrong can be overwhelming. However, that’s not a reason to stay silent. A lot of the time, discriminatory language can appear in the form of microaggressions. Microaggressions are defined as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority”. As a rule of thumb (but most definitely not an exhaustive approach), you should consider two key areas when it comes to speaking about diversity and inclusion to avoid these microaggressions:

Avoid all Generalizations and Lumping Together

Understand that, even within diverse groups, identities are nuanced, complex and multifaceted – so try to avoid statements such as: “So, you’re BAME?” When learning about inclusive language around race and ethnicity, the term BAME is a controversial one. It has been criticized as being exclusionary and divisive. Similarly, the term ‘ethnic minority’ can be seen as too broad – and ‘people of colour’ has faced similar criticism.

In general, don’t assume how anyone identifies. Even when speaking about issues affecting diverse groups, try to avoid generalising experiences – for example, saying: “All black people have experienced X.” Although systematic injustices do exist, which will cause common experiences among certain groups, treating an entire group as homogeneous is unhelpful.

Think About Why, and Use Replacing Techniques

Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s alive, and built on a foundation of cultural contexts and complexities. Therefore, taking time to always consider the origins of the language you’re using can go a long way.

A microaggression which is unfortunately common is statements like: “I don’t see color.” Although this comes from a good place, ignoring color also means ignoring the inequalities that individuals face because of their ethnicity. Scratching beneath the surface to understand the true meaning of the words or phrases you are using can be incredibly powerful.

A simple trick when thinking about whether language is inclusive or not is to use replacing techniques. A common microaggression experienced by ethnic minority individuals is: “Can I touch your hair?” This is a fairly straightforward microaggression to deconstruct as it crosses workplace boundaries, but it is asking a question of a person of color that wouldn’t be asked of a white person. Therefore, ask yourself whether, if the recipient of this statement was not an ethnic minority individual, it would be acceptable.

Another example of this can be referring to a group of women as ‘girls’. If this was replaced with a male equivalent, it wouldn’t be the norm, so why is it the norm to refer to women in this way?

Using these two techniques, hand in hand with avoiding assumptions and putting yourself at the centre of the conversation, can go a long way in setting a tone of inclusion from the top of an organization.

Constantly educating yourself is key – and can make the intimidating topic of inclusive language something you can get comfortable with.

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