The language that you use in everyday communication conveys who you are and how you view other people. Components of an inclusive language definition include showing respect for all people and gaining an awareness of the broader society. Using inclusive language demonstrates cultural competency.
Given the organic nature of inclusive language, it’s important to know that preferred terms vary by individual and regularly change. Showing a sincere interest in respecting others and an earnest interest in learning about cultural differences is the key to mastering inclusive language.
Inclusive language involves the use of terms that are culturally aware, that center on a person and that respect individual identity.
Consider Basic Terminology
As you work to define inclusive language, begin by looking at the concept of how it relates to diversity and multiculturalism. Here are a few definitions to consider:
- Bias: Bias shows preference or prejudice toward an individual person or group. Language is a tool for communicating a conscious or unconscious bias.
- Microaggression: Similar to bias, a microaggression is often an unintentional discriminatory act that marginalizes or discriminates an individual or group. Asking an Asian person to help you with a math problem insinuates that all Asians should be proficient in that subject.
- Underrepresented: An underrepresented population is a group of people who are in the minority. Inclusive language is focused on diverting from mainstream terms that may further exclude an underrepresented group.
- Marginalized: A marginalized population is a group of people, usually underrepresented in society, who are treated as insignificant or unimportant. Language that excludes a population is a mechanism for further marginalizing that group.
Understanding the Importance of Context
As you work to understand an inclusive language definition, take into account that context is relevant to each interaction. If you use language to characterize a particular group, would you do the same for all groups, especially the majority? For example, would you say "white mayor" or "heterosexual teacher"? Leave out descriptive words that define a specific affinity group to remain inclusive in your language.
Delve Into Words About Ability
Inclusive language related to ability excludes words like handicapped, crazy, psycho or disabled. The inclusive language meaning related to ability focuses on the person first. For example, say “person with a disability” rather than "a disabled person." It’s important to avoid using victimizing language like "stricken" or "affected." Don’t be afraid to ask a person with a disability how he prefers to be identified.
Learn About Why Pronouns Matter
Pronouns identify the gender of others. An inclusive language definition centers on respect for individual identity choices and to strive to be gender neutral. In an effort to protect gender and sexual identities, don’t be afraid to ask about personal pronouns before assuming what they may be.
Similarly, consider introducing yourself by identifying your personal pronouns. Some gender-nonconforming and transgender people prefer pronouns like "they," "them" or "ze."
Think About Gendered Language
Gendered language is commonplace in today’s society. In some cases, gendered language establishes role expectations or even sends a message that men are the superior gender. Here are a few examples:
- Salesperson instead of salesman
- Firefighter instead of fireman
- Police officer instead of policeman
- Foreperson instead of foreman
- Camera operator instead of camera man
- Spokesperson instead of spokesman
- Staff the desk instead of man the desk
- Boys will be boys
Inclusive Language Definition for Sexuality
An inclusive approach for sexuality is to refrain from assuming the sexual orientation of others. If you feel like you need to know someone’s sexual identity, consider why it’s important for you to know. An attraction to a particular gender is considered an identity, not a lifestyle. Similarly, avoid the use of the phrase “sexual preference” since most people do not consider sexuality a choice.
Examine Your Vocabulary for Racial Inclusion
Language is a powerful tool that can perpetuate societal stereotypes. Inclusive language related to race works to exclude the idea of whiteness as a norm. Often, noninclusive language is used without intent. It’s important to understand your own biases and potential words and phrases that send a message that a particular race is unwanted or devalued. Here are a few words and phrases to eliminate from your vocabulary:
- Inner city
- You people
- Mumbo jumbo
- Sold down the river
- Alligator bait
Consider Messaging About National Origin
Never assume that a person is or isn’t a citizen of the United States. The perceived ethnicity or race of an individual doesn’t indicate their citizenship. Similarly, the primary language spoken by a person doesn’t guarantee her country of origin.
When speaking to individuals or groups, refrain from referring to them as citizens or Americans. Instead, use a word like "the public" to be more inclusive. Here are a few noninclusive language examples in sentences that may send the wrong message:
- “Where are you from?” This question insinuates that the individual is not welcome or doesn’t belong.
- “Please help me learn some words in your language.” This request sends a message that the person is from a different country or place.
- “Where were you born?" This question infers that the person was not born in America.
Don’t Age Others
Even if you feel that you’re offering a compliment, language that refers to age may not feel inclusive to the recipient. For example, “You look so young” may be construed as "I can’t believe how old you are." Similarly, avoid the words "elderly" or "ageism" because they connote negativity about growing old. Never assume that the age of a person is matched with a conservative viewpoint.
The Language of Faith and Holidays
The use of certain words can begin to embed a norm of a single religion into the fabric of an organization or relationship. Inclusive language never assumes that all people attend a church or chapel. Using a phrase like "place of worship" provides a broad term that can apply to people of all faiths or religions.
Similarly, assuming that all people observe specific holidays or referring to a particular time of year (December/Christmas) as a religious holiday is not inclusive of people who don’t identify as Christian.
Don’t Assume Socioeconomic Status
People who come from a low socioeconomic status are often characterized as needy, poor or disadvantaged. Inclusive language shows respect for people without consideration of their financial means. Language that classifies individuals according to their social worth is demeaning and further marginalizes their identity.
Phrases or words that attach a value to the identity of an individual based on socioeconomic status shouldn’t be used. Here are just a few examples of language that labels an individual based on socioeconomic status:
- Blue collar
- Working class
- Low life
- Pull yourself up by the boot straps
- Poverty is self-inflicted
- Trailer trash
- White trash
- Lives in the projects
- Bad off
Learn and Listen
The best way to gain proficiency as an inclusive language speaker is to invest in education and training. The more that you learn about people who are not like you, the greater understanding you’ll have about how language can marginalize others.
Be open to constructive comments from others and practice active listening skills. The road to understanding the inclusive language meaning comes from intentional learning and a sincere interest in building respect for diverse communities.
Dr. Kelly Meier earned her doctorate from Minnesota State Mankato in Educational Leadership. She is the author and co-author of 12 books and serves as a consultant in K-12 and higher education. Dr. Meier is is a regular contributor for The Equity Network and has worked in education for more than 30 years.