Language for humans has become the most powerful tool that can bind us and also tear us apart. Ever wondered when the use of a particular word has resulted in the other person getting upset and angry. What strikes me as a British Asian is how the language around race becomes difficult for many white people. On a recent webinar on diversity and inclusion, a senior executive spoke of their fear of offending others when talking about race – 'what are the right words to use?' they asked.
Well, the truth is that there is not an exhaustive list of what words are acceptable to everyone in every situation. What is more certain is the right language used respectfully can create an environment that can be inclusive and welcome. The issue of ethnicity and identity some white people sometimes avoid using any words at all or do not know many people from recognised protective characteristic groups such as black, Asian, disabled and LGBTQ.
In the U.K., our social discourse has often left out individuals, usually, those that are not indigenous to these Isles. This has resulted in marginalisation and discrimination. My reflection of being a young police officer in the early '80s is that the N and P words were commonly used for members of the community by officers who reflected society norms of that time. The use of these words became habits. Using these words now is unacceptable, and new habits have been practised. We know that terminology changes with time. The term coloured was commonly used when I was growing up; however, it has significant associations with the slave trade, colonialism, and apartheid. It has now generally been seen as a negative term.
Communication is a two-way street. What is said and then how it is heard. I am not asking for people to worry over every word that they say, however moving from the phrase, ‘that’s not what I meant!’ to understanding what impact the word has on others is a good start.
My top tips for a more inclusive language in workplaces are:
· Embark on a journey of self-improvement – if you feel a little ‘iffy’ about how you address someone – ask them. It's up to others to choose how they what to be addressed and spoken about.
· Put the person first rather than the stereotype - that Asian guy or that guy with a suit? Take out the bias descriptor that is applied to people.
· Avoid jargon and acronyms, and they are often rooted in stereotypes, e.g., call a spade a spade?
· Monitor gender words – look, guys, he/ man. Be more neutral
These tips are not complete and will keep evolving, but a good meaningful open discussion can help to build a more inclusive culture and a better you and me.