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How Language Could Be Sabotaging Your Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

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Many years ago, I gave birth to identical twins who were both assigned female at birth. Twenty years on, one of them still identifies as female while the other twin is non-gender conforming (non-binary) and uses they/them pronouns.

In a clever use of language, their twin sister coined the term “sibster” to describe their relationship with her.

As societal norms shift, language evolves to meet the ever-changing needs of communication and sets itself up to be an agent of inclusivity. Unfortunately, for every utilization of language that promotes inclusivity, there are dozens of ways language can still uphold and enforce exclusionary behaviors.

This means that if your organization is pouring thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours into diversity, inclusion and belonging initiatives but it’s not focused on replacing outdated language and challenging verbal microaggressions, all of that time and money may well be wasted.

What are verbal microaggressions?

Verbal microaggressions are utilizations of language that create a hostile environment or communicate derogatory or prejudicial beliefs against a person or group.

  • Are you a woman who is always being asked by male colleagues to make coffee and take notes?  This is a microaggression based on female stereotypes and patriarchal expectations of women.
  • Are you an introvert who has been asked by a boss to “be more extraverted?”  This is a microaggression that perpetuates extravert privilege and the idea that extraverted behavior is preferred and superior to perceived introvert behavior.
  • Are you a Black woman who gets requests to touch your hair? This is a microaggression based on racism and Othering behavior.
  • Are you a neurodivergent person who is told to be less sensitive or more sociable? This is a microaggression that implies neurotypical behavior is the only acceptable form of behavior and that sensitivity isn’t an asset in the corporate workplace.

Stopping verbal microaggressions by slowing down

Any time we do not treat people as human beings worthy of dignity and worthy of being seen and understood, we are failing to be truly inclusive. By moving too fast and not slowing down to engage with someone empathetically before we speak, it’s often inevitable that we project our prejudices onto them.

Haste is a form of violence. When we move too fast, we lose touch with the humanity inherent in others, and we end up saying things from places of bias instead of places of kindness. Often it’s not even intentional, but impact always outweighs intention, so it is vital to the health of any team or organization to slow down and be aware of the prejudices we unwittingly carry in our language. Once we are aware of these prejudices, we can then begin to focus on making our language more inclusive.

Related: The Power of Person-First Language in the Workplace: Why the Words You Use Matter

What does inclusive language look like?

Language can help you…

Honor someone’s neurodivergence. Many people who have ADHD are highly sensitive to criticism, feedback and injustices. Knowing you are engaging with a neurodivergent person and then acting on that knowledge can make all the difference in getting the outcome you want and need, all while honoring that person’s unique wiring.

Respect how people want to be seen and addressed. Names are deeply important to people, and so are other forms of address like titles and pronouns. Taking the time to learn the correct pronunciation of someone’s name or to call them by their correct pronouns is not just kind. It’s necessary to build truly inclusive environments.

Be anti-racist. It’s vital to inclusion efforts that we strive for awareness around archaic language that reinforces white supremacy. Many words and phrases we commonly use are actually rooted in racism and anti-Blackness while others have been appropriated from other cultures and should not be used by white people in casual conversation. When you see and hear this kind of language, call it out. Sometimes people aren’t aware and just need to be informed.

Related: The 6-Figure Language Tutor: Eduardo Vega of San Diego’s Culture & Language Center

Why your inclusion initiatives might be failing

The other day, a professor asked my now college-age twins, “Are there any important distinctions between the two of you besides your haircuts?”

My daughter, baffled, replied, “What do you mean? We are literally two different people.”

Were his intentions good? Maybe.

Was his impact dehumanizing? Absolutely.  

DEIB efforts in organizations fail because of toxic language and behaviors just like this that happen in workplaces all over the world every day. Because all too often, we refuse to see people as individuals with unique wiring and different needs and instead opt for lazy approaches to inclusivity that ignore humanity and prioritize efficiency instead.

I told my kids that if they don’t feel safe, they should drop the class. And that same rule applies to anyone in an organization where they don’t feel safe either.

If you’re wondering why people are leaving organizations in droves right now, maybe look at what is being said. Are you using language that validates them as people or are you leading them to believe you don’t actually see them as human beings worthy of kindness and belonging?

Related: 8 Body Language Cues That Lead to Better Business Connections

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