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Language Matters: How To Change Your Communication Style To Ensure Inclusivity

Really… What’s wrong with the words I’m using?

Language can affect different people differently—and I’m not talking about slang here. When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, DEI research and data show that the language we use (even if we think it’s benign or neutral) can have unintended effects that isolate people and limit our influence.

In a time of workforce shortages and burned-out employees, why would we want to isolate anyone? Especially when all it may take is a few simple tweaks to make people feel more included.

For example, the saying, “Hey, you guys,” can cause people to feel excluded or withdrawn because “you guys” only refers to men. A small swap to “hey y’all” or “hey everyone” is a simple switch that instantly ensures all your employees feel addressed and included.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t about trying to please everyone. People can find lots of ways to be offended. But there are many limiting language barriers that are easy enough to fix that it makes sense to put in a little effort to update your speech.

There are gender biases, ethnic biases, racial biases, ableist biases, sexuality biases, style biases, and more—and none of us can possibly know everything. But we can (and should) begin to take actionable steps toward reducing any harm we may unintentionally cause and making people feel more included. Here’s why.

Why Language Matters to the Brain

From a business standpoint, diversity, equity, and inclusion matter. Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity in management are 35% more likely to have above-average financial returns. And those in the top quartile for diversity in gender are 15% more likely to experience returns above the average.

Plus, studies have found that diverse teams are more factual and innovative. Yet, the language we use could keep us from achieving ideal levels of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Either directly or indirectly, language biases are harmful. For example, in 2018, it was discovered that Amazon’s AI recruitment engine was not rating candidates in a gender-neutral way. Instead, it penalized women based on phrasing and resume language.

The words we choose can dramatically affect how people feel, and they also have physiological consequences, like anxiety and high blood pressure. Words also play a huge role in the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and the continual marginalization of already-marginalized groups.

The thing is, our brains use a collection of filters and biases to help us understand the world and navigate quickly. But our filters and biases are based on our unique life experiences. Which means we might see and interpret the world entirely differently than someone else.

Our biases could result in unintended consequences, like using language that dissuades inclusion and diversity rather than encouraging it. The best way to avoid this is to work to limit our biases and alter our language to be more neutral and inviting.

3 Tips to Start Prioritizing DEI In Your Everyday Language

Here are three tips to begin altering your language to ensure others feel safe and included.

1. Be Curious and Work to Increase Your Awareness

There’s a lot of new information available about how we can limit our language. But for many people, limiting their language feels threatening and challenging. If changing the way you speak makes you feel nervous or agitated, try to reframe how you’re looking at the issue.

Start with curiosity and focus on gaining more awareness. Ask yourself questions like, “What things might I be saying that are limiting?” As a start, here are some examples of phrases that people might consider harmful or offensive:

  • Taskforce – anything that’s focused on action that’s forceful is limiting

  • You guys – only men matter

  • Manmade – excludes women and non-binary individuals

  • Chairman, businessman, mailman, or other gendered occupations – gender-biased

  • Gung Ho – cultural appropriation

  • Pow Wow – cultural appropriation

  • No can do & Long time no see – racist connotations

  • Peanut gallery, grandfather clause, uppity – racist roots

  • Crazy, insane, nuts, spaz, etc. – harmful to people with mental or emotional disabilities

  • Master bedroom – has slavery connotations

  • Disabled person – Generally, strive to use person-first language, i.e., a person with a disability vs. disabled person or a person with autism vs. autistic person, though be sure and check the person’s preference.

For more examples, check out this resource here. Now, once you identify those areas, it’s time to work to change them.

2. Pick 1-2 Words to Work on at a Time

Don’t worry; You don’t need to try and change every single utterance all at once. You can start with just one or two words or phrases. If everyone picked a couple of things they say often and swapped them with more inclusive language, it would have an immediate and resounding impact across society.

Start by choosing just one or two terms you might be using and find an alternative phrase for them. Then, practice using the new term. You might do a word of the day or week to gradually start incorporating more inclusive language into your everyday language.

Remember, you’ve used these phrases for a long time, so it’s likely they’re a habit for you. It might take some time before you completely eliminate these words from your vocabulary. And that’s okay. The most important thing is that you’re making an effort to make your language more inclusive.

3. If You’re Struggling, Check Your Thinking

If you’re still struggling, take some time to check your thinking and reach out to someone who has a different background than you. Then, ask them if the way you speak is limiting to them. Sometimes getting an outsider’s perspective can help us see things more clearly and unlock an added level of empathy.

If changing how you speak feels like it goes against you or your identity, ask yourself, “what’s the harm in making a few tweaks?”

For example, let’s say you’re trying to hire new employees, and more specifically, you’re trying to add more women to the team. Using phrases like “must demonstrate XYZ'' tends to dissuade women from applying. But replacing the phrase with something like “should have experience in XYZ” is much less likely to turn them off. Not a big change, right?

If simple swaps make people feel more comfortable, what’s the harm?

Choose Your Words Carefully and Compassionately

Words have power, and the words you use and allow in your workplace could be directly harming your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Take the steps you need to help root out harmful language from your organization’s vernacular.

If you’d like to learn more about making communication your number one tool, check out our Unbox on Communication.


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