Ask the Business Editor: What Is Inclusive Language?

by Benedetta Lamanna

Published at 2022-03-09

As a human being, language is one of the most influential tools that you have. As with everything in life, language evolves and you need to ensure that you evolve with it, especially if you want to ensure that the language you use is inclusive.


Unintentionally, you carry your own biases and assumptions with you every day, and these preconceptions can affect your oral and written communication.


Inclusive language is language that respects and celebrates all individuals as equal, valued members of society. It avoids excluding others and using stereotypes, and excludes any words or phrases that portray individuals or groups of people as less valuable, less equal, or less able. Inclusive language is free from racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination.


Studies show that inclusive language is central to fostering a more inclusive society for all individuals.


For business and communication professionals, inclusive language promotes equity and diversity both internally (among your employees) and externally (among your customers).


This blog will introduce you to the basic first steps you can take to start practising inclusive language. For more information about the points presented here and to learn more about inclusive language, please see the Reference List below.



Why Use Inclusive Language?


Using inclusive language should be a core practice for all businesses. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are core values that all companies need to strive for. If, as a business owner, you’re not using inclusive language, you can risk your company’s reputation and put yourself at risk for legal damages if people find you are being discriminatory.


More importantly, using inclusive language ensures that all individuals, whether they are employees or customers, feel valued. Communicating inclusivity helps to foster an environment where everyone can participate, be recognized, and be heard.


By promoting a brand that champions inclusive language and prioritizes diversity, you can connect with your employees and customers on a more significant level, thereby creating long-term relationships.


Using exclusionary language, such as “guys” when addressing a gender-mixed audience, on the other hand, perpetuates cycles of bias, which can lead to microaggressive behaviour. This form of behaviour involves subtle, intentional, or unintentional interactions that are biased towards groups that have experienced ageism, racism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination.


Another benefit of using language that reflects equity, diversity, and inclusivity is that it can attract a more diverse range of candidates for your business, and help to decrease employee turnover. Employee retention, in turn, can help reduce costs and maximize profits.


A brand, such as Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Zara, that uses inclusive language, shows that it cares about its customers on a deeper level.  If your brand recognizes the diversity of your customers, they will be more likely to think of your company as a compassionate, caring one.  An objective well worth aiming for.



How to Use Inclusive Language?


Word choice is key to any document that your company creates.


It’s normal to have concerns about how to effectively use inclusive language. These concerns can range from how to define certain terms, which words to avoid in order to not be offensive or outdated, and how to use pronouns correctly.


Ensure that your communications materials consistently use language that is respectful of equity and diversity. For example, ensure that bias is removed from all of your internal and external content, including job postings, websites, social media, emails, as well as any other platforms that your business uses.


Want to ensure that your language is more inclusive, but not sure where to start? Consider creating a style guide that features a section on inclusive language to ensure consistency and respectfulness across platforms. This way, all your business communications will promote your message of caring and respect.


Here are some best practices for you to follow when incorporating inclusive language into your business communications, which can also be great starting points for building your inclusive style guide:


*  Use gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/their) in reference to individuals, unless you know their preferred pronoun or pronouns. Using they/them/there when referring to a single individual is now a widely accepted practice.

*  Avoid using generalizations about individuals that belong to a certain race or ethnicity; instead, recognize people as unique beings with many complexities and characteristics.

*  Use language that is up-to-date, such as 2SLGBTQ+ (2 Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer), to ensure respect and sensitivity.

*  Use words such as “humankind” instead of “mankind” or “everyone” instead of “guys,” which helps to involve people who don’t identify as male.

*  Use gender-neutral job titles such as “chairperson” instead of “chairman.”

*  Use language that does not associate different races with different implications. For example, using “black” to refer to negative entities, such as “black sheep” and “black market” and using “white” to refer to goodness and innocence.

*  Use the term Black (capitalized) to show cultural sensitivity to a group of individuals that has historically experienced discrimination. Similarly, use Latino, Hispanic, South Asian, and East Asian.

*  Avoid the terms Aboriginal People, Native People, or First Nations People, which do not adequately reflect the unique origins and identities of individuals from these various groups; instead, use the preferred terms Aboriginal Peoples or Indigenous Peoples (which are also plural and capitalized).

*  Use people-first language that emphasizes the individual as opposed to their descriptor; for example, use people with disabilities rather than disabled people.

*  Avoid assumptions about an individual’s background or preferences; use neutral words that include individuals from different genders and sexual orientations, such as “folks” instead of “guys.”

*  Hear out your colleagues and customers to learn about words or phrases that they consider offensive; avoid phrases that might lack cultural sensitivity (such as “where are you from originally”) or terms that are linked to systems of oppression (such as “slaving away”).

*  Avoid referring to “young” as a positive characteristic and “old” as being a negative characteristic. For example, not using patronizing language when referring to people who belong to certain age groups



Put Your Practice into Action


Ensuring that all your employees are trained to use inclusive language helps to uphold your overall mandate of being respectful of diverse individuals and identities.


Although using inclusive language can take some work, it’s important for your business to begin incorporating this practice into your communications. As stated above, this practice will promote a positive company culture and uphold a strong customer base.


Inclusivity is a value that doesn’t need to be limited only to language. Make sure you promote diversity in all parts of your business, including company hiring practices and mentorship programs. Doing so will help ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are front and centre in all of your business endeavours.


For more information on inclusive language, including how to incorporate diversity and inclusion into your brand’s identity and communications, see LinkedIn’s “Inclusive Language for Marketers: A Pocket Guide,” which provides key tips and strategies on how to use more proactive and respectful language. 



Reference List


“Inclusive Language for Marketers: An Inclusive Guide,” LinkedIn

“Guide to Using Inclusive Language for Your Brand and Business,” Sprout Social

“Inclusive Language Guidelines,” Queen’s University

“How to Use & Promote Inclusive Language at Your Organization,” Hubspot

“Why Inclusive Writing Is Essential for Business,” Forbes

“Inclusive Language Examples and How Businesses Use It,” Clarkston Consulting

“Inclusive Language Guide for Your Business [+Tips that Will Help you Adapt],” Rock Content

“Inclusive Language Guide for Tech Companies and Startups,” Medium

“Affirming and Inclusive Language,” Egale

“Gender-Inclusive Language,” The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill



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