In our last post on inclusive language, we looked at examples of brands using gender inclusive language. Now let’s look at how you can approach making your language more inclusive.
We all tend to use language we’ve grown up with, that’s familiar. But language changes.
It’s a living, shifting thing. So sometimes the language we use without thinking excludes groups of people from it. We don’t mean it, but if we don’t challenge it, we perpetuate the problem. Language is so powerful – it can confirm harmful stereotypes or appear to legitimise discrimation. Or, used differently, it can change attitudes.
When you start looking for it, you see discriminatory language is everywhere. Some languages (like French, which I grew up speaking) apply binary gender to everything by default. Others use ‘man’ or ‘he’ as the default (policeman, chairman). Many everyday phrases have their origins in racism (master/slave is still commonly used in computing, for example) or other harmful systems.
There’s so much terminology that people don’t think about. But we have to think about it. My attitude is always that if you don’t know you’re using harmful language, you’re not at fault, the first time. But once you do know, you have a responsibility to learn and adapt.
It can feel like a challenge – where do you start, if you’re a brand trying to use more inclusive language in marketing, and how do you avoid making mistakes?
- Start with an open mind.
If you’re reading this post, you probably have an open mind about how language could and should be more inclusive. After all, in marketing and social media, a large part of our job is to use the right words to communicate, to broaden (not limit) our audiences. The way language changes over time is fascinating, too – so being open to changing could take you on a really interesting journey.
- Do the research.
There are so many resources out there to help you learn about inclusive language. From UN guidelines on gender-inclusive language to the Conscious Style Guide, which breaks down language by category (and has a regular newsletter to keep you up to date), there are plenty of places you can visit to increase your knowledge about language.
- Understand your community.
I challenged one of my favourite brands recently, when it sent me a newsletter which included the phrase ‘s/he’. That excludes anyone who doesn’t use ‘she’ or ‘he’ pronouns, AND it’s impossible to say. ‘They’ is a much more inclusive term (and if you’re worried about the grammar, you’ll be pleased to know ‘they’ has been used to denote both singular and plural in the English language since 1375, in the same way we use ‘you’). The brand listened, and adapted its language – that’s an amazing example of a brand that was willing to hear from its community, and change.
Communities evolve – listen to how yours might be changing.
- Small changes make a big difference.
Think about how you address your community, what signifiers you use. There are some easy switches you can make right away. ‘Hey guys’ could become ‘hey everyone’, or ‘hey y’all’. ‘She’ and ‘he’ become ‘they’. A policeman becomes a police officer. A master bedroom becomes the largest bedroom, or ensuite. A ‘Christian name’ becomes a ‘first name’. Asking someone what pronouns they use is a really simple thing to do (and respect their answer).
These are all small steps that help you think about the impact language could have.
- Learn and adapt as you go.
Language is constantly evolving, and is endlessly fascinating. Knowing the right things to say now doesn’t mean they’ll be right in the future, so keep researching and learning, and adapt your language as terms change.
Inclusivity isn’t about restricting your language, but about growing it and have inclusive language in your marketing and putting it at the heart of your brand.