Do you often wonder what kind of language you should use in order to be more inclusive? Many of us must have heard about using gender inclusive pronouns like they/theirs instead of binary ones like he/his or she/her or maybe not using words like whitelisted or blacklisted to prevent racial injustice. And a few of us must be wondering, why does it even matter to think about these aspects. Shouldn’t it be enough to convey thoughts as per each individual’s comfort? After all language is for communicating, and as long as the matter is being understood, do we really need to delve into these nuances.
To answer this question, let me walk you through a scene. I am not sure how many of you have read the novel ‘A time to kill’ by ‘John Grisham’. The story is placed in a period during which racial injustice was a norm in America. I particularly love the ending where the author compels the reader to look at the world from the eyes of the vulnerable. This is a small snippet from the book.
The gist here is that we sometimes don’t really feel the pain unless the pain is inflicted to somebody like us. We fall short on empathy when it comes to the vulnerable, mainly due to the biases formed by various factors like upbringing, current norms in society, peer pressure etc. The mere mention of the statement ‘Now imagine she’s white’ changed how the entire incident was perceived by the jury (in the book).
This is the power of language. The words we say, how we say, do matter. This is true in real life as well. Imagine you are having a conversation with top notch stakeholders of your company and they are cracking these sexist jokes. And obviously for them, “It is just a joke”, “It’s not a big deal”, “It didn’t mean offense” and my personal favorite “Why do we have to make everything so serious?”.
Now imagine that you fall under the spectrum on which these remarks were passed on. Would you still be humored? Or would a part of you would want to confront them or expect them to change the topic. Sadly, what many of us actually do is, laugh along or ignore.
This is mainly because these are really powerful people and your career graph might be directly proportional to the number of times you laughed at their jokes. But what we tend to forget is, these are also leaders who can create impact and shape the future of the company. And truth be told, if a comment has made someone feel uncomfortable, then there is something wrong with the comment and not that someone. Casual stereotype remarks like ‘crying like a girl’, ‘being a pussy’, ‘men will be men’, ‘dumb blondes’, ‘be a man’, etc aren’t funny or encouraging anybody. Using ‘he’ for all breadwinner activities and ‘she’ for household chores isn’t helping either.
A classic example I could think of here is the use of a woman logo for Scotch-Brite’s cleaning products. The stereotype was pointed out recently since only products like brooms, bathroom wipes and toilet brushes carried the logo.
Maybe because when we need to remove tough stains, we would need something like ‘Mr. Muscle’. Obviously, tough stains can’t be tackled by women.
These illustrations are so painfully hilarious because it is really difficult to believe that there might be stereotypes even in different sections of household chores.
Assuming a pronoun itself is omitting a wide spectrum of people, leaving them feeling disconnected. And if the leaders are actively indulging in them, then they are simply incapable leaders. This logic applies to all of us. In some or the way, we do have a power to create impact, regardless of how minuscule it might be.
What should we do then? Should we stop having conversations? Obviously not!
Now for many of us this can get really cumbersome. We do agree with everything mentioned above, but since our brains are so hardwired to the norms, we are in a dilemma and it gets difficult to be inclusive. To that I would say, if you really care, try and practice hard. Reiterating the most clichéd line of all, Rome was not built in a day. If by mistake you did pass a comment or couldn’t use gender neutral terms, just make a note of it. By time you will definitely get better. I had a sticky note on my laptop reminding me to use gender neutral terms like people/folks for a group and they/their while giving presentations. Besides the sticky note, I also found this Gender-inclusive language guidelines by UnWomen really useful. I don’t say that I have reached perfection. I do make mistakes. But, the count has gone significantly down.
Another way of being inclusive is re-evaluating the visual aids you use. Just have a look at your slides/presentations/content and see the visuals/images/videos you have used until now. Are they inclusive enough for everybody? Or do they depict a particular gender? Or race? You will automatically get pointers on where you need to focus.
This is how I did it. It could work for you as well. At least give it a shot. It is definitely worth it. You are conveying your thoughts to everybody and not just to a bunch of people. And believe me, the feeling is amazing. Your emotions are reaching to a wider audience and that’s where the beauty of language and communication lies after all.