Words Matter: How Language Influences Inclusion
Unpacking how language shapes and reinforces social stereotypes.
Posted April 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Language shapes how we see the world, and we use it to make sense of our reality.
- Language can perpetuate stereotypes about those who have already been largely marginalized.
- Inclusive language has the potential to increase individual and team objectivity.
Language shapes how we see the world. We use it to make sense of our reality. We use it to label people and things around us. Label something beautiful, and you acknowledge its uniqueness, elevate its value, and bestow upon it influence—in this way, you render it special. Label a person beautiful, and you confer upon them congruent benefits. On the contrary, label something ugly, and you overlook its uniqueness, deny its value, nullify its influence, and in this way, render it unworthy, redundant, disposable. Labeling a person ugly, again, has the same effect.
We know that words matter. As a theme of growing interest in international business, we explored in a Harvard Business Review article how linguistic patterns can fortify or deconstruct socially prescribed biases that have the potential to impede or further the inclusion agenda.
As a key ingredient in creating more equitable worlds of work, inclusive language confers a number of benefits to employees and employers alike:
- Embracing inclusive language provides the opportunity for each of us to develop into better communicators while caring for those with whom we communicate (Seiter, 2018).
- Language has a unique ability to build bridges; it can help all feel less limited by their sociodemographic characteristics and respective philosophies.
- Language can serve as an equalizer among individuals, resulting in a more equitable distribution of work, which is a game-changer for streamlining costs and social mobility.
- Inclusive language has the potential to increase individual and team objectivity, leading to stronger decision-making and more goal-oriented perceptions.
- Language can be personally valuable in the present climate in which one wants to avoid lawsuits, career stagnation, or even dismissal.
Modern-day lexicons are littered with gender-biased terms. We tend to favour words that depict male involvement and symbolise male dominance over gender-neutral language. We call grown women “girls” and boys “young men" — and consider our preference toward words like “mankind” over “humankind” or “Chairman” over “Chair”. Such labels reinforce invalid dogmas on the roles that men and women should occupy in society – and positions that they can successfully realise. This priming starts in infancy and becomes embedded in our psyche throughout the life course.
In fact, one recent study revealed a connection between gendered language and socially constructed gender roles, suggesting that these subtle, yet powerfully conveyed, narratives are linked to specific rhetoric strategies and underpinned by potentially harmful ideologies (Hartmann, 2020). It's the reason why professional women are more likely to be relegated to stereotypically feminine tasks in the workplace, such as note-taking, event organisation, and coffee runs, while men in the same orbit are instinctively selected for delegation, supervision, and client-facing tasks.
Equally, businesses have the power to influence society – in both positive and negative ways – through the language they use in product development. Product branding ultimately funnels down to customers through its many touch points; from distribution and marketing to procurement, stakeholders at each stage are influenced by the socially responsible (or irresponsible) choice of language used. In this way it can shape the social consciousness of society. Consider 1992 Teen Talk Barbie doll which said, "Math class is tough!”, an early-life deterrent that could prime young girls away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classes.
Language can connect people to the values of an organisation such that it increases loyalty. In contrast, the potential costs of bad messaging are diverse and many – from advertising spots being pulled, a reduced rate of product success, lawsuits, diminished competitive advantage, and a damaged reputation. But beyond that, there is the most basic responsibility to do no harm. This includes eliminating language biases that saturate through organisations. Compliance is not enough. It is about developing a culture of inclusivity.
Inclusive language pays homage to the concept of tolerance and reflects a legitimate respect for others. However, it appears we have regressed a position centrally focused on our right to language autonomy. Given that we do not exist in a vacuum, there is a need to balance free speech against harmful speech. Too often we forget that respect is a basic premise of positive social interaction that requires reciprocity. A fundamental problem is that there is much focus on what one cannot say, rather than all that one can say through the big wide world of linguistics.
The reality is that what we think typically underlies what we say, particularly in moments of thoughtless intention. Leaders with an agenda that seeks to promote a truly diverse and inclusive space can easily sabotage those efforts by words alone. Corporations are encouraged to avoid analyses of opportunity costs in the aftermath of poor language choices that damage brand equity. By acknowledging the ability of language to shape and reflect reality, diversity, equality, and inclusivity campaigns can become more powerful vehicles for social change and justice (Hamilton et al., 2022; Klitmøller, 2015; Marques, 2009).
The reality is that what we think typically underlies what we say, particularly in moments of thoughtless intention. Leaders with an agenda that seeks to promote a truly diverse and inclusive space can easily sabotage those efforts by words alone. Corporations are encouraged to avoid analyses of opportunity costs in the aftermath of poor language choices that damage brand equity. By acknowledging the ability of language to shape and reflect reality, diversity, equality, and inclusivity, campaigns can become more powerful vehicles for social change and justice (Hamilton et al., 2022; Klitmøller, 2015; Marques, 2009).
This is, in part, an adaptation of Hamilton and colleagues’ 2022 peer-reviewed article “How to Make Your Organization’s Language More Inclusive,” published in the Harvard Business Review.
Hamilton, O. S., Kohler, L., Cox, E. B., & Lordan, G. (2022, March 18). How to Make Your Organization’s Language More Inclusive. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/03/how-to-make-your-organizations-language-more-in…
Hartmann, S. (2020). Identifying discourse patterns in social media comments on “politically correct” language. Yearbook of the German Cognitive Linguistics Association, 8(1), 27–44. https://doi.org/10.1515/gcla-2020-0003
Klitmøller, A. (2015). When Distance is Positive: Exploring Inclusive Language Use in Virtual Work. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2015(1), 13537. https://doi.org/10.5465/ambpp.2015.13537abstract
Marques, J. F. (2009). How Politically Correct Is Political Correctness?: A SWOT Analysis of This Phenomenon. Business & Society, 48(2), 257–266. https://doi.org/10.1177/0007650307307155
Seiter, C. (2018, June 6). Guide: Inclusive Language and Vocabulary for Startups and Tech. Buffer Resources. https://buffer.com/resources/inclusive-language-tech/