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  • Writer's pictureJulia Makhubela

Inclusive Language

Language is bestowed upon us. Babies don’t have the opportunity to choose their names. Equally they don’t have the opportunity to choose their language. They learn language from their caregivers and family, and as they grow, they learn it from their communities, schools, media, church, and all other powerful social systems.

Historically, language has divided us and left many out. But language can connect us and include. It is an essential for creating an inclusive workplace. Inclusive language seeks to treat all people respectfully and with dignity. It requires that we treat people the way they want to be treated.

To connect and include, we need to be conscious and deliberate. This requires not only compassion for others but self-compassion as well because we didn’t choose our language. It is not easy to consider the implications of our words that have long gone unchallenged. Language that we’ve carried with us for years can feel like a big part of our identity. It is habitual and easy for us to use, we don’t hear what we are saying, and we also don’t mean any harm! But to hold onto unexamined language can cause harm and pain.

Naomi Eisenberger, Social Neuroscience Researcher at University of California at Los Angeles, ran studies that revealed how social pain (exclusion and discrimination) registers in the same area of the brain where physical pain registers.

We help organisations to be deliberate learn how to use inclusive language, and we use the following diagram to create the awareness of the personal development required, as well as interpersonal and organisational work.

Personal: Language help us describe things, and it also reveals how we see things. It reveals our unconscious biases, assumptions, ideas about norms, and stereotypes. One needs to develop self-awareness and to be self-reflexive (‘where did I learn this?’) whilst learning inclusive language.

Interpersonal: In interpersonal engagements, we impact each other through our language. We are not always conscious of our impact and need others to give us feedback so we can become conscious. When we are lucky to get unsolicited feedback, our reaction informs whether the giver of the feedback will be open to give us feedback in the future or not.

Organisation: In an organisation, language is embedded in documents, posters, communication, and day-to-day interactions. If the language used excludes or discriminates, it is often invisible to anyone that is included or not put down and highly visible to those who the language excludes or discriminates against.

Society: Language is embedded in all structures of society: media, stores, products, culture, norms, public figures, etc. This is what makes certain terms, words, expressions, and ideas normal and taken for granted.

Oxfam has created a Inclusive Language Guide (here) which is really helpful for anyone who wants to learn how to communicate inclusively. We offer an interactive Inclusive Language workshop aimed at organisation leaders, and communication practitioners.

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