By the end of this chapter, you should be able to
- Explain how the ways we use language affects how we think
- Define the term “inclusive language”
- Identify examples of inclusive language in describing gender, race, and abilities and in naming practices
In 2018, the Canadian government legislated a change to the English version of the national anthem. The words “True patriot love in all thy sons command” were changed to “True patriot love in all of us command”. This adoption of gender neutral language signals a change in Canadian society. The inclusive language shifts how people of all genders see themselves as Canadians as well as how others see them as fellow patriots.
As cultural standards change, the expectations for ethical uses of language change. As a business communicator, you will need to monitor changes in cultural expectations. For example, the Spanish language is gendered; a male is referred to as “Latino” and a female as “Latina”. The term “Latinx” is now sometimes used as a gender-neutral alternative. The term is not widely known or accepted, according to 2020 Pew research in the United States, which shows that only 3% of Latinx use the term and prefer instead “Latinos” or “Hispanics”. In the last two years, “Latinx” has become increasingly divisive along American political party lines. Business communicators will need to monitor the preferences of the people to whom the term refers to avoid offending the targeted audiences.
To maintain effective relationships with your audience, your language should be free of prejudice or bias. Your written pieces and oral presentations should avoid any language that perpetuates negative views of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, age, or other characteristics like immigration status or physical or mental abilities.
For the audience, inclusive language demonstrates respect. It communicates that all people are included in the conversation. Non-inclusive language intentionally or unintentionally excludes, stigmatizes, or dismisses people. Inclusive language also changes the perspective of the speaker or writer with the consideration of another person’s world view.
The 14-minute video linked below does not directly address inclusive language; rather, the video explains how our language reflects our world view. Before we move on to ways to make our language more inclusive, we first need to understand why it is so important to change our perspective through language use.
(Direct link to How language shapes the way we think by Lera Boroditsky video)
In her TED Talk, Boroditsky asks us to consider why we think the way we do and how we might think differently. In using inclusive language, we open up our minds to a broader range of possibilities.
The following interactive presentation defines inclusive language and provides some examples of what to avoid and what to use to be more inclusive (questions to check your knowledge are embedded in the presentation).
As a business communicator, you will need to be aware of how your language shapes how you view the world and the ways in which that view may exclude certain peoples or ways of being. Using inclusive language requires continuous learning and practice. Many business have adopted guidelines for inclusive language practices. For example, Apple’s general guidelines for writing include the following:
- Think inclusively. “As you write, think about your potential audience, and try to imagine your content from their perspective…” (Apple Style Guide, 2021, para. 1).
- Research words. Apple recommends researching the history of words to determine whether or not to use them.
- Avoid terms that are violent, oppressive, or ableist. Apple no longer uses the term master to refer to a primary device.
- Avoid idioms and colloquial expressions. Apple instructs employees to use language that is accessible to people learning English.
- Don’t use colour to convey positive or negative qualities. Apple says to avoid assigning positive or negative qualities to colour, for example, to avoid using the word blacklist. Colours should describe colours but should not be used metaphorically.
Universities also have style guides; for example, click here for Dalhousie University’s style guide. Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and About Indigenous Peoples also offers stylistic advice. These tools can assist you in changing language habits that are exclusive or demeaning.
The Canadian National Anthem has undergone multiple and constant revisions since the music was composed in 1880. In its bilingual version, “O Canada”, originally written in French, is inclusive of our two national language groups, French and English. The change to gender neutral phrasing in 2018 indicates a cultural shift. Controversies remain, however, about other language used in the anthem. Some secular groups take issue with the reference to “God”, and some groups identify the phrase “our home and native land” as problematic for immigrant Canadian cirizens (Kallmann and Potvin, 2012). The anthem also does not recognize Indigenous Peoples. These changes and omissions are controversial. As business communicators, listening for cultural shifts and reactions can help identify audience needs as well as areas where businesses can reflect and promote social change.
Kallmann, H., & Potvin, G. (2012). O’ Canada. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/o-canada
Noe-Bustamante, L., Mora, L., & Lopez, M.H. (2020). About one-in-four U.S. Hispanics have heard of Latinx, but just 3% use it. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2020/08/11/about-one-in-four-u-s-hispanics-have-heard-of-latinx-but-just-3-use-it/