by Suzanne Wertheim, PhD, author of “The Inclusive Language Field Guide”
I’ve developed a simple new framework for people who want to harness the power of inclusive language. People who want to make sure that they’re paying attention. People who want to use language to build and improve their relationships and to create and maintain connection.
After I left academia, I started consulting for organizations that want to use more inclusive and appropriate language. For years, my clients have come to me because they feel overwhelmed by all the information out there on inclusive language. It’s often in bits and pieces, it’s sometimes contradictory, it feels scattered, and they can’t figure out how to apply knowledge from one short list of “bad” and “good” words to other areas. The fact that interpretations are so context-dependent can make things feel even more complicated.
So I’ve created an organizing system for you. It’s my Six Principles of Inclusive Language.
Each principle has been reverse-engineered to address problems I’ve seen in my years of consulting and research — research that is based on multiple languages in multiple countries. So even though the examples in this book will be focused on English as spoken and written in the United States, the principles can be applied to any language in any location. If you are Deaf and in the US, you can straightforwardly use my examples for written English but will need to translate into equivalents for sign language. And if you speak English in another country, you might have to do some translation work when it comes to the specific examples I use. But the principles I’m illustrating with those examples will hold true.
In addition, each principle is based on a foundational truth about what creates feelings of connection, safety, and trust in all kinds of relationships, including the relationships between companies and clients.
Finally, each principle is designed to hold steady even as language changes and evolves. Words that are considered acceptable today may become unacceptable in just a few years, but the principles you can use to evaluate these words will stay the same.
Together, these six principles can be used as a powerful checklist to evaluate language:
- Reflect reality.
2. Show respect.
3. Draw people in.
4. Incorporate other perspectives.
- Prevent erasure.
- Recognize pain points.
If you follow these principles, you’ll be speaking and writing inclusive language. And you’ll be able to explain to people in a clear and scientific way what’s wrong with problematic language.
In order to reflect reality, it’s important to use appropriate pronouns and accurately refer to gender, which is more than just a binary. I’ll also show you three problematic ways that language is commonly used to distort reality.
To show respect, you must avoid giving unconscious demotions — those snap judgments where you assume someone has a lower-prestige job than they actually do. (Or when someone who is just going about their day is assumed to be dangerous or a criminal.) And you must understand how important it is to say and spell names correctly, avoid using unwanted nicknames, and address people respectfully without misgendering them.
To draw people in, you need to learn about pejoration and how negative cultural attitudes can turn neutral words into insults. You must also understand the concept of markedness and how it underpins the subtle ways that language can suggest that race only involves people who aren’t white.
To incorporate other perspectives, you must know the importance of thinking through the ways other people’s lived experiences might be different from your own. There are some subtle ways that pronouns such as you, we, and everybody can exclude people who haven’t been taken into account.
To prevent erasure, think about the negative effects of phrases like “you guys” and contrast it with the ways that gender-neutral language includes people instead of erasing them. Know the importance of avoiding misnaming, using language that reflects that there are multiple skin tones, remembering and including indigenous history, and remembering and including sexual orientations beyond heterosexual.
Finally, in order to recognize pain points, learn how to give compliments that land well and how to avoid compliments that show inappropriately low expectations. See how important it is to learn about and avoid lightly referencing painful experiences that have been glossed over in white or Western history, such as dictatorships, genocide, and chattel slavery.
If you focus on the activities for one principle each month, by the end of six months, you’ll have a whole new toolkit for inclusive language. You’ll be able to speak fluently in ways you couldn’t without practice. When you encounter questions about whether or not language is inclusive, you’ll be able to evaluate that language using the six principles as a checklist. And you’ll be able to make well-informed choices that let you harness the power of inclusive language.
*Excerpted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, from the book “The Inclusive Language Field Guide” by Suzanne Wertheim, PhD, 2023.
Suzanne Wertheim, PhD is a national expert on inclusive language and an international keynote speaker with more than two decades of experience researching and speaking about inclusive language. She is also the author of “The Inclusive Language Field Guide: 6 Simple Principles for Avoiding Painful Mistakes and Communicating Respectfully“. Dr. Wertheim currently serves as the CEO of Worthwhile Research & Consulting, which specializes in analyzing and addressing bias at work.