You’ve probably heard or maybe even used the phrase “No comments from the peanut gallery!” It means that the speaker doesn’t want to hear petty criticisms from the audience. Or how about describing someone who’s a little arrogant or full of themselves as “uppity”? Perhaps you’ve heard a lawmaker say that a new ruling doesn’t apply to a particular organization because it’s been “grandfathered in.”
All these phrases are used in everyday language—but they’re also examples of how racism, discrimination, and other forms of social exclusion have crept into the ways we communicate. The peanut gallery refers to the section of theaters where poor and typically Black people sat when public spaces were segregated. Uppity is a term that racist southerners used to describe Black people who “don’t know their place.” And grandfathered stems from a set of 19th-century laws that prevented many Black people from registering to vote.
Exclusive and insensitive language isn’t limited to race. Here are a few more examples:
- Mental health: Saying that you’re OCD about keeping your desk neat can come off as unsympathetic to people diagnosed with this very real mental illness. Some people also use schizophrenic to describe someone who is moody, or a situation characterized by disorganization, but using schizophrenic casually (and incorrectly) can further stigmatize the condition and the people who have it.
- Gender and sexuality: The term transvestite is an outdated and offensive way of referring to a heterosexual man who wears clothing traditionally associated with women (but can refer to any person who cross-dresses as a means of gender expression). Opposite sex acknowledges only two sexes, excluding people who identify as non-binary.
- Ability and disability: Describing someone as confined to a wheelchair, suffering from an illness, or even tone-deaf or having a blind spot can be perceived as belittling and insensitive to people with disabilities.
Language is complex and constantly evolving to reflect social norms—how can you stay current on inclusive usage? Here are a few easy-to-follow guidelines:
- Think “people first.” Every person—regardless of their race, ethnicity, abilities, or orientation—is a whole person, shaped by feelings and experiences gained by interacting with the world around them. Keeping this in mind helps us communicate with empathy and respect. For example, saying person with a disability acknowledges a person who, in addition to other characteristics, happens to have a disability; the disability doesn’t define them.
- Be clear and specific. The accuracy of language often depends on context. Not only do some words and phrases run the risk of offending people—they can also confuse your audience if the context is ambiguous. A great example of this is the phrase the American public, which is often used as a synonym for citizens. But not everyone living in the United State identifies as American, and some are not citizens. In most cases, using the term the public is clearer and more inclusive. If you're referring to information specifically related to citizenship, then citizen is appropriate.
- Don’t assume. It’s easy to assume someone’s background or preferences by outward appearances or with limited information—but as we all know, things are frequently not what they seem. This is especially true when talking about gender, sexual orientation, and relationship status. You can avoid potential language pitfalls by using spouse or partner vs. husband or wife, and parent vs. mother or father, instead of assuming their marital or family relationships.
- When in doubt, ask. Sometimes the best solution is just to ask the person what their preferences are for how they identify themselves. Some people may prefer Black vs. African-American, or non-binary instead of transgender—but you won’t know for sure unless they tell you. If you’re scared to ask, remember that it’s better to know for sure than risk offending someone. Be respectful and succinct, and explain that your goal is to communicate accurately.
Some may complain that language is becoming too focused on “political correctness.” That attitude is fine if you can afford to lose customers, clients, or colleagues by offending them—and in today’s competitive market, that’s a risk most organizations can’t afford to take. Using inclusive language strengthens your brand by showing that you care about your audience, who in turn will reward your efforts to be inclusive with brand loyalty.
Want to learn more about how to incorporate using inclusive language in your communications? Here are some great resources: