One of the biggest barriers to inclusion is language. Language really does matter, especially to people who are feeling excluded.
So much of inclusive language is based on what the individual prefers. Which pronouns do they use? Would they like to be known as autistic or a person with autism? Are they comfortable disclosing a mental health condition, neurodiversity or sexual orientation?
The best way forward is to ask the individual themselves what they prefer. Frank conversations are quite often welcome. Words at Work (PDF) – a practical guide to inclusive language produced by the Australian Diversity Council – says: “When using language about a group of people, it is best practice to defer to people with lived experience. This is respectful.”
But sometimes this is awkward, and we can’t bring ourselves to ask. In these cases, many people revert to their habits. Failing that, the current social norms – or whatever our organisation says we need to say – are the fallback position.
In addition to the awkwardness, so many of us are busy, stretched and exhausted. This can sometimes mean that there’s no room for doing that little bit extra to recognise someone else’s truth, or being a little bit gentler or more inquisitive about ourselves or others in the moment. This is especially so if you’re working in-person with a lot of other people, day in, day out.
And let’s just admit that it’s hard to think of every individual when you’re writing a brochure, creating a form or producing a report. It’s very rare to find a checkbox labelled ‘What does the individual prefer?’
Over the years I have learned that it’s nigh impossible to create widespread cultural change without a set of rules. Sadly, in my mind, organisations can’t trust the beliefs, tendencies and habits of individuals to get the terminology right on the day, or in the moment, so there must be a blanket mandate.
This mandate can be an actual policy, or maybe it is established in the form of ‘social norms’. These are the agreements we make – consciously or unconsciously – to go along with the crowd. They can be driven by our sense of what we think others should do. Or they can be driven by what we think others want us to do.
In most contemporary workplaces, inclusion, and the corresponding use of the appropriate inclusive language, are part of the agreed social norms. The language that is used across an organisation can be casually or formally agreed upon as the right language to use. This means that, when language is deemed unacceptable, the social norms can set the tone on whether we call it out, or whether we turn a blind eye.
So, here I want to challenge you: What do the social norms around inclusion look like in your community or workplace? Can you guide this in a more positive direction? And, if so, what are the most reliable sets of rules to refer to?
The Words at Work (PDF) is a great place to start for general guidance around inclusive conversations in the workplace. It has tips and ideas on how to handle conversations and ‘in the moment’ decisions.
The Australian Government Style Manual has a fantastic set of editorial rules that we can follow, making inclusive written communication easier for us all.
And there’s a fabulous website called MyPronouns.org that explains how to be respectful when using pronouns.
In my experience, changing pronouns is completely possible, you just have to be willing to change your habits and then you have to concentrate on your speech. MyPronouns.org explains that it’s best not to make a big deal if you make a mistake: “Making it a bigger deal in the moment is not necessarily helpful and could be harmful unless that’s what the person who was incorrectly referred to wants.”
A willingness to learn is a necessary ingredient for success, as is an ability to forgive yourself if you slip up. Practice makes perfect after all! From there, an understanding of what the other person prefers and adherence to the agreed social norms can make up a decent structure for inclusivity.
Thanks for being part of my inclusion journey so far. I look forward to staying in touch.