Defining inclusive language
When we define inclusive language, we aim for communication that avoids using words, expressions or assumptions that would unnecessarily exclude people. For the past few decades, there’s been an increased awareness of language that excludes on the basis of gender. Whereas past generations may have been taught to use “he” as the default for a person, the latter half of the 20th century saw people looking to alternate “he” and “she” or to re-write to avoid identifying gender at all. More recently, there’s been more awareness of a spectrum of gender identities and gender expression.
A definition of inclusive language, though, goes beyond merely gender. With inclusive language, we aim for communication that includes people, regardless of gender, language, culture, religion, race, ability, family structure, marital status, sexuality, origin and so on.
Quick examples of inclusive language
Sometimes, simply changing one word for another can make the difference between inclusive and exclusive language. Examples: “It is man vs the environment” can just as easily be “It is humans vs the environment”. Or “We come in peace for all mankind” would likely now be “We come in peace for all humankind”, although humans or humanity could also be used. Similarly, using words such as “server” instead of “waiter” and “waitress” can avoid needless use of gender. Saying “parent” instead of “mom” may also help include more parents and family structures. But, as we note, gender inclusive examples are just one category of inclusive language.
Why use inclusive language?
Have you ever been worried you’re using outdated words to describe people and groups? Are you concerned that it may impact your client and professional relationships, as well as your personal ones? Keeping up with inclusive language can sometimes feel like you’re running on a hamster wheel towards something you’ll never quite reach. Thankfully, we have some examples below that will help you approach the problem with a better understanding of why word choices are so critical to those relationships.
Inclusive language, sometimes disparaged as ‘political correctness’, is actually an attempt to address imbalance in written and spoken language. Instead of assuming your audience is all the same, inclusive language allows you actively embrace diversity and the intersection of identities, and to avoid assumptions that could harm relationships before they even start.
Inclusive language is language that shows sensitivity, respect and open-mindedness toward individuals and groups through positive, accurate, equitable representation.
Examples of inclusive language
As awareness and education grow, some terms fall out of favour while others are revealed and/or recognized as offensive, exclusive, disrespectful, or privileged. Below are some examples of out of date language and how to navigate using more current inclusive language examples to make your clients, colleagues and friends feel included and welcome.
- It’s Man vs. The Environment
Better: Humans vs. The Environment
Why: This is a pretty straightforward one that is an easy shift to make. Sometimes, simply changing one word for another more encompassing one can make the difference between inclusive and exclusive language.
- Waiter or Waitress
Why: Gendering a job needlessly is both unnecessary and cumbersome. Think police officer, mail carrier, chair – describe the work, not the gender.
- Mom or Dad
Better: Parent, guardian or caregiver
Why: This list of terms helps to include more family structures such as grandparents as caregivers, same-sex parents, foster parents, etc.
- We are all immigrants
Better: This country includes people from diverse backgrounds, heritages and experiences.
Why: Indigenous people did not immigrate. Also, some people were moved to countries through implied or direct force, threats, or non-voluntary means, such as kidnapping and slavery, taking refuge from a war in their home country, etc.
5 Okay boys and girls, gather your things!
Better: folks, everyone, children
Why: For the past few decades, there’s been an increased awareness of language that excludes on the basis of gender. Whereas past generations may have been taught to use “he” as the default for a person, the latter half of the 20th century saw people looking to alternate “he” and “she” or to re-write to avoid identifying gender at all. More recently, there’s been increased awareness of a spectrum of gender identities and gender expression,. For example, resources like SOGI 123 are being used in BC and Alberta schools to promote student safety and inclusion. By avoiding use of the binary, you are including all people in your class.
- On the warpath
Better: Angry and seeking retribution
Why: This language can demean Indigenous peoples and reinforce stereotypes.To quote Les Couchie of the Nipissing First Nation:
“This gave the public the idea that we were nothing more than a hostile and uncompromising warring people who always sought resolution through violent methods.”
- The elderly
Better: People who have trouble walking a short distance. Persons with dementia. Persons on fixed incomes.
Why: Be more specific. Focusing on the need avoids assuming that all people from an age group are as described. Not all people over 65 have dementia, for example.
- Autistic person/Person with autism
One important thing to realize is that there is only one hard and fast rule around inclusive language. When in doubt about correct usage, the best course of action is always to ask the individual about their preference.
The two phrases above are examples of Identity-First and Person-First language. Tracy and I know many people with autism (including Tracy), and several of them prefer to be described as autistic people. Imagine the challenge we felt in crafting the previous sentence!
Person-first language was adopted to honour individuals as being more than the othering language that describes one of the identities that belong to them, such as disability or gender orientation. It was considered dehumanizing to put identity first, as it was seen as erasure of the individual.
More recently, Identity-first language has seen people reclaiming their identity by self-describing as belonging to a particular group. Rather than accept that words like disability are inherently negative, they want to reclaim them as simply an identity that is a positive part of their being, and a matter of pride to identify as such.
Course on inclusive language
At CareQuadrant, we know many people struggle with inclusive language and that many people want to do better at shifting to language choices that help them better communicate and connect with others on both personal and professional levels. We created Pronouns and Inclusive Language, with the goal of helping people make a shift toward conscious language. Learn more about the course and even earn CPD credit for Pronouns and Inclusive Language.