Why You Need to Use Inclusive Language, and How To Do It – with Examples

Inclusive language is the new black. But inclusive language is so much more than the latest trend. Using inclusive language is something we should all be making a conscious and concerted effort to do, in our personal and our professional lives.

In this post, we define inclusive language, discuss why it’s important and explore how it varies across geographic and linguistic boundaries. We also provide concrete examples of inclusive language in action and detail the steps you can take to make sure you and your business are communicating inclusively.  

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language means communicating in a way that includes all humans. It’s communicating in a way that doesn’t exclude groups of people. It can apply to individual words and expressions as well as to assumptions that we make. Inclusive language – or rather, the need for it – often comes up when we talk about topics like gender, disability and ethnicity.

Inclusive language is actually a rather large umbrella. Under it are subsets such as gender-inclusive language and anti-ableist language. But in truth, inclusive language is relevant for all aspects of identity, from age and appearance through to religion and socioeconomic status.

Why inclusive language is important

Businesses need to not just be aware of inclusive language, but also put it in practice. Not doing so means you risk alienating and excluding certain groups, and damaging your brand reputation – even if your messaging was well-intentioned.

If however you embrace an inclusive approach and use inclusive language, it can:

·         Result in better content, for everyone.

·         Demonstrate your company is inclusive and respectful

·         Show groups that are often marginalised that you support them

·         Show that you’re in touch with what’s happening in the wider world

·         Indicate that you’re more likely to understand the needs of a diverse customer base

·         Challenge assumptions and influence worldviews

Let’s look at two of these in more detail.

Communicating inclusively = higher quality content

It may not be that intuitive, but communicating inclusively ultimately results in higher quality content. Why? Because part of writing inclusively is writing plainly. In other words, writing in a way that is as clear and simple as possible. This makes your content easier for everyone from all backgrounds and abilities to understand. And this means it has a greater impact. It’s really a win-win.

Using inclusive language can shape worldviews

The way we use language really does shape the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us, whether consciously or unconsciously. For example, children who grow up hearing about ‘firemen’ or ‘policemen’ may assume that only men take on these roles. And even when they learn they’re open to women and non-binary people too, that learned association can be hard to shake.

How inclusive approaches differ across languages and cultures

There are a variety of approaches to inclusive language. Languages and cultures have different structures that they have to work within or around, meaning that inclusive language has developed differently from one language to the next. But there are also varied opinions and approaches within languages. Let’s delve into this a little more.

Gender inclusivity in English

English is a relatively ungendered language. This makes writing gender-inclusively a little easier. But this isn’t to say English has had to adapt. In recent years, there’s been a movement towards gender-neutral terms for all professions. For instance, a preference for using ‘actor’ for thespians of all genders, rather than the traditional ‘actor’ and ‘actress’; ‘wait staff’ as opposed to ‘waiter’ and ‘waitress’. In the same vein, the singular pronoun ‘they’ is now widely used as a gender-neutral option, rather than ‘he/she’, and as a non-binary pronoun.

Gender-inclusivity in French

The French language is much more gendered than English and poses greater challenges to writing inclusively. As a result, it often requires more of a creative approach.

Let’s look at professions again. Interestingly, while English has moved towards using just one word that applies to all genders, French has gone in the opposite direction. Feminine versions of male-gendered professions have been coined, such as ‘professeure’ (traditionally only the masculine ‘professeur’ was used).

Pronouns and adjectives are also often feminised by adding feminine endings to words, separated by parentheses, a full-stop or dot in the middle of the line. So we see things like ‘étudiant·e’ or ‘chargé(e) de mission.’

Advocates of gender-inclusive writing in French recommend coming up with creative ways of avoiding the need to specify a gender. This means choosing words and reformulating sentences so that they’re not gendered. Using collective nouns is one workaround. For instance, using the non-gendered ‘le lectorat’ instead of ‘les lecteurs et les lectrices’, and ‘la police’ instead of ‘les policiers’.

However, not everyone is on board with gender-inclusive writing. In fact, in May 2021, the French ministry of education banned its use within schools and the ministry itself, believing that it makes reading more difficult for students with dyslexia. The debate continues!

Inclusive language examples

So what does inclusive language look like in the wild? We’ve pulled together a few examples of its use in English:

·         using the pronoun ‘they’ instead of just ‘he’ or ‘he/she’

·         not specifying gender unless it’s relevant

·         using ‘Ms’ rather than ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’

·         using ‘humankind’ ‘human race’ or ‘humanity’ instead of ‘mankind’

·         not making assumptions about someone’s identity, such as family makeup, sexuality, gender identity, race or ethnicity or ability

·         using ‘people with an intellectual/physical disability’ rather than people being ‘mentally handicapped’ or ‘disabled’ (note: this is a people-first approach – others may prefer an identity-first approach)

·         using plain language, such as ‘pay’ or ‘wage’ instead of ‘remuneration’

How to write (or translate) inclusively

So how can you make sure you’re communicating inclusively? We’ve pulled together some key steps to get you started but perhaps the most important takeaway of all is to not assume. This means not assuming which pronoun a person uses. Not assuming the gender of their significant other. Not assuming their ethnicity, race or really any aspect of their identity.

Instead, learn to ask. For example, you could ask which pronouns a person uses. This is a great way of avoiding offending or unintentionally excluding them. It might sound strange to ask this to begin with, but the more you do it, the more normal it will become. And doing so regularly can spark some interesting conversations about identity and inclusivity.

It’s also worth pausing and asking yourself – do you really need to know? Aspects of an individual’s identity can be very personal. Make sure you give people the time, space and support to disclose parts of their identity as and when they feel comfortable to do so.

1.      Back to basics – are you, and your company culture inclusive?

Before you actually put pen to paper, you need to build the foundations for inclusivity. This might mean doing a stocktake of employee and customer perceptions about inclusivity, belonging and company culture. We also recommend making sure you have policies and initiatives in place to bolster equality, diversity and inclusivity.

How much work you need to put in to make your workplace inclusive will depend on your starting point. But wherever you’re starting from, don’t miss this step. Because it’s only with the right mindset that you and your team can understand the importance of fostering inclusivity, embrace and use inclusive language genuinely. What’s more, by creating a more inclusive and diverse workforce, your team will naturally be more aware and create more diverse and inclusive content.

2.      Lead by example

Policies or grand statements are no good if they’re not supported by action. Your leadership team – even if it’s a team of one! – needs to demonstrate they believe in creating an inclusive workplace and walk the talk by using inclusive language. Make sure they know why this is important, and how to go about it.

3.      Provide training and guidelines

The benefits of teaching your team how to write – and think – inclusively are twofold. Firstly, they’ll learn how to use inclusive language. And secondly, the very act of teaching these skills can help foster a more inclusive work environment.

A training session is a good place to start. To go even further, why not provide inclusive language guidelines tailored to your business? This way, you can demonstrate how inclusive writing ties in with your brand tone of voice. In fact, you could incorporate guidelines on writing inclusively into your style guide if you have one already. These guidelines can not only show your own staff how to communicate, but can also be used by people you outsource work to, such as translators, content writers or graphic designers.

4.      Monitor, tweak and evolve

Training for you and your staff isn’t the end of the road. You need to check that this is actually being applied day-to-day. One excellent way of doing this is through surveys. You could use both customer satisfaction and staff surveys to see how things are going, and resolve any issues.

Also, language is constantly evolving. This means learning how to communicate inclusively is more of a journey than a destination. It’s important you – or someone in your team – stays up to date with the latest guidance and thinking on how to write and behave inclusively.

Useful resources for inclusive language

Writing in English

·         The conscious style guide – this website is a real treasure trove of information for writing about many different topics, including health, ethnicity and race, as well as using plain language.

·         The UN publishes guidelines on using gender-inclusive language in English

·         The UK government has guidance on inclusive language when writing about disability

·         HubSpot provides information on how to use gender-neutral pronouns

Writing in French

·         Communication agency Mots-Clés features manuals on inclusive writing and hosts workshops

·        The Langage inclusif site provides a free, detailed inclusive writing guide as a google doc

Writing in other languages

·         The UN’s gender-inclusive writing guidelines are also available in several languages

·         The EU provides information and guides on writing and translating in different EU languages

·         There’s a LinkedIn group called Linguists for diversity and inclusion designed to help language professionals with inclusive writing

·         The Plain Language Association provides useful resources on using plain language around the world

Need help with inclusive translation and content creation?

Looking for help with inclusive content for your business in English, French, Dutch, German or Spanish? Don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’d love to discuss how we can help.

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