Guide to Using Inclusive Language

Five people bump fists together while standing over a large table covered in laptops and notebooks

Using Inclusive Language: Guidelines and Examples

The modern American landscape is polarizing, heated, and divisive, with increasing numbers of people disagreeing absolutely on key social issues like race and gender. This division has led to a country where a majority of Americans feel unsafe, in both their personal and professional lives. In such a divided era, it’s important for organizations, employers, and employees alike to prioritize inclusivity in the workplace, so everyone feels valued, comfortable, and safe at work. One of the simplest yet most significant and effective ways to promote inclusivity in the workplace involves using more inclusive language. The words you use, and the way in which you use them, have a huge impact on others, and, though they may seem small, using inclusive language is important; it can help build a better, safer work environment for you and your coworkers.

Being mindful of speech and word choice will come more naturally to some than to others, but inclusive language can largely be facilitated by education. Pursuing a Liberal Studies degree — or a similar liberal arts degree — will allow you to naturally learn about inclusive language by studying American diversity. The Liberal Studies curriculum covers a variety of relevant topics, such as Multicultural America, Women in Literature, and Race, Class, and Gender in American Society. These courses work to bridge the gap between discrimination and inclusivity, and prepare you to speak on these complex and sensitive matters, in and outside of the workplace.

You can still learn about inclusive language and how to use it outside of the classroom, but it takes continual time and effort to recognize your biases, unlearn your established habits, and actively change your behavior to be more accepting of all individuals. You also need to understand what inclusive language is (and isn’t) and the different groups and identities in the workplace that you may need to be more conscious of. Making these changes to be more inclusive may feel awkward or strange at first, but each step you take toward this goal will make your work environment that much better and safer for everyone.

What Is Inclusive Language?

Inclusive language is defined as “language that avoids the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people.” Any person or group can be excluded with language, but typically, this term is used for traditionally underrepresented or underprivileged groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities or members of the LGBTQ community. Further, inclusive language is used in order to avoid offending or demeaning people based on stereotypes or personal perceptions.

Using inclusive language shows that you’re aware of and value the different perspectives, identities, and ideas that other individuals bring to the table. This helps create a safe and open environment where others know they won’t be judged or looked down upon for being who they are or for characteristics they can’t control. Additionally, using inclusive language indicates that you would like that same courtesy from other people and establishes the need for mutual respect while you engage with each other.

Person-First Language

Person-first language (PFL) is a huge component of inclusive language for people with disabilities, and it must be a priority when you’re speaking about or with members of this community. When referring to a person with a disability, you should always put the person first, rather than the disability. For example, you should say “a person who is blind or visually impaired” rather than “a blind person.” This phrasing places the emphasis on the individual and doesn’t reduce them to or view them exclusively as their disability.

Identity-first language (IFL) is the opposite: you refer to someone as their identity first, then as a person. Using IFL, you would say “an epileptic person” rather than “a person with epilepsy.” The distinction between PFL and IFL is incredibly significant, and there’s been much debate between which option is better for this community at large.

Generally, for people who do not have disabilities, PFL is preferred. Two notable exceptions are the Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing and Autistic communities, who prefer IFL. However, preferences vary between individuals, and when trying to be respectful, it’s best to not make assumptions. To be inclusive of people with disabilities, simply ask which one that person feels more comfortable with.

Why Is Inclusive Language Important?

Language is a powerful tool, and it can have a huge impact on people; a growing body of research highlights how people are affected by language, showing just how important using inclusive language is. One study found that using gender-exclusive language can make individuals feel ostracized from a larger group, particularly in the case of women. Another found that using gender-inclusive language could help reduce gender-based discrimination against women and other gender minorities. Further, not only does it have a profound impact on a personal level, but inclusive language is also believed to be important for business success. Just as diversity can drive innovation in an organization, using inclusive language can increase creativity and improve employee performance in the workplace.

Critics of inclusive language may claim that it’s unnecessary and too politically correct, or that Americans are too easily offended by others’ language. However, language is often used to perpetuate and spread prejudice, discrimination, and violence against marginalized groups and individuals. Using inclusive language is a simple but powerful way to stop the dissemination of these harmful ideas and create an environment in which everyone feels respected and safe.

How Implicit Bias Affects Inclusive Language

Though using inclusive language is hugely important to navigating each of your day-to-day interactions with others, your language may not be as inclusive as you want or need it to be. This is largely due to your implicit biases, which are your unconscious associations, attitudes, and beliefs held about a given social group. Everyone has implicit biases, both positive and negative, about themselves and other people. At times, these unconscious beliefs may even directly contradict someone’s personal beliefs, or their own identity.

Implicit biases aren’t inherently bad; it’s simply a reflection of your brain’s ability to perceive patterns and simplify information. However, implicit biases can easily lead to stereotyping and discrimination, especially against marginalized groups, in the workplace. It can influence who is hired for a position, how people are compensated, and who is chosen for a promotion. One study found that when black and white individuals sent out similar resumes to employers, white candidates were significantly more likely to be chosen for interviews despite having similar qualifications. In this way, even when you actively reject or oppose these unconscious beliefs, your implicit biases can still affect how you see and interact with other people.

Similarly, your implicit bias influences how you speak to and about other people. Without thinking or realizing it, you may exclude or stereotype someone with your language because of their age, gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, or other characteristics. You may not even know that the way you speak to others is offensive or demeaning because of how deeply ingrained these biases are. And even if you don’t intend or mean to offend someone, non-inclusive language still cause harm, perpetuate damaging stereotypes, and insult the people you work with. Being aware of your implicit biases is crucial to overcoming them, being more inclusive with your language, and ensuring you create a safe space for everyone you work with.

Unconscious Bias Training

You may not be able to erase them entirely, but you can address and work to overcome your implicit biases. In the workplace, this is frequently done through unconscious bias training. These programs aim to make people aware of their biases, give them the tools they need to examine and adjust them, and hopefully reduce or eliminate any problematic or discriminatory behavior toward other people.

Large companies, such as Google and Starbucks, often have their employees undergo unconscious bias training, but an increasing number of businesses are choosing to incorporate it into their organizations. As unconscious bias training becomes more popular, there should be greater demand for individuals who can create and run these programs for businesses and organizations of all types. A Liberal Studies degree will prepare you for a variety of careers that may involve creating and implementing a training program; the knowledge and skills learned while getting this degree will be relevant and vital to help foster diversity and prioritize inclusion in the workplace.

There are many different types of unconscious bias training, and they can vary greatly between organizations. A small company doesn’t need the same type of training — nor does it have the same resources to create a program — as a large corporation. In some cases, an unconscious bias training program may be unique to that specific organization. Generally, these programs use similar methods to achieve their goals. Some of the most common training methods include:

  • Counterstereotype training:This method involves taking common stereotypes and presenting people with something that contradicts, invalidates, or disproves that stereotype. For example, women have traditionally been restricted to the domestic sphere, but showing examples of women who focus on their careers or inhabit “masculine” or high-powered roles show that they have the option of stepping outside of the home and being successful. While some researchers claim this is the most effective training method, others believe emphasizing stereotypes can actually increase bias.
  • Implicit bias workshops: This method uses a number or combination of different unconscious bias training techniques. Some workshops only last a few hours or a day, but others can span days, weeks, or even months. You can easily tailor workshops to suit your specific needs and create a program that caters to your workplace.
  • Negation training: This method aims to reduce or prevent stereotyping from occurring in the first place by denying information that reinforces stereotypes themselves. However, further research indicates that negation training may not be as effective at reducing bias as other methods.
  • Perspective-taking training: This method helps foster empathy for minorities and other groups by having people look at things from someone else’s point of view. Although this form of training is still being developed and explored, many believe it to be an effective way to reduce bias.

Though more organizations are embracing unconscious bias training, many people are questioning whether or not these programs actually work. Some individuals claim they simply make the problem worse and should be forgone entirely, but others believe that they have value and are worth improving. Further, researchers have reported mixed results when analyzing their effectiveness. Ultimately, additional research will be needed to determine the true effectiveness of unconscious bias training.

Inclusive Language Examples

While it’s important to know what inclusive language is and why it matters, it’s equally important to know what words and phrases, specifically, are respectful and inclusive — and which aren’t. Avoiding obvious derogatory terms or slurs isn’t enough; you must also eliminate common words that you may not even know are offensive and replace them with more acceptable and respectful alternatives. This is key in making sure that each and every person around you feels valued, comfortable, and safe.

Further, certain populations are more vulnerable than others, and when you encounter people from these groups, you should strive to make using inclusive language an even larger priority. As a society, our ability to recognize marginalized groups is always changing, and you shouldn’t limit yourself to being respectful of the groups listed below or that you’re already familiar with. The world changes constantly, and we continually become more aware of different issues and identities. Our language simply needs to follow suit.

Age

For many people both young and old, age is a sensitive subject; however, for people age 40 and older, it’s also a protected trait under US federal law. Age discrimination, or ageism, is being prejudiced or discriminatory against someone because of their age. Modern society tends to favor younger people and hold negative attitudes about aging, which can be actively harmful to older adults.

Intergenerational communication in the workplace can be difficult, but it’s vital to ensure that all employees feel respected, regardless of their age. Some ageist terms to avoid include:

More inclusive alternatives include:

  • Aging adult/person
  • Elderly person;
  • Older adult/person;
  • People over X age;
  • Senior.

In general, simply do your best to be respectful when discussing age. Some people may not be offended by the ageist terms listed above, but others might be; it varies from person to person, and it’s best to avoid patronizing, offending, or insulting someone based on their age. And finally, keep in mind that there’s no need to talk about or refer to someone’s age in most situations. Ask yourself if it’s truly necessary before bringing it up, and if it is, simply discuss the specific age number or birth year without attributing any negative terminology or connotations to it.

Class

Social and economic class is another subject you need to be mindful of when speaking. Class discrimination or classism is defined as “a biased or discriminatory attitude based on distinctions made between social or economic classes.” Although you can perpetrate classism against someone from any socioeconomic class, it’s typically used to refer to people who aren’t wealthy or privileged.

It’s all too easy to perpetuate classism through your language, as our social class is tied directly to the way we speak. Researchers have found that strangers can determine your socioeconomic status within the first seven words you speak to them. You will encounter people from all backgrounds in the course of your work and your life, and you should strive to eliminate classist language from your vocabulary. Classist terms to avoid include:

  • Hobo;
  • Impoverished;
  • Needy;
  • Poor or poor person;
  • Poverty-stricken;
  • The homeless;
  • The less fortunate or the unfortunate.

More inclusive alternatives include:

  • Economically disadvantaged;
  • A person experiencing homelessness;
  • A person experiencing poverty;
  • A person living at or below the poverty line.

Additionally, don’t assume that everyone has a job, stable living conditions, or enough money to meet their basic needs. Recognize your own privileges and do your best to recognize the accomplishments and contributions of people who are experiencing poverty or who have a “lower” socioeconomic status than you.

Disabilities

Though briefly discussed above, there’s more to using inclusive language for individuals with disabilities than person-first language. Although it is illegal, ableism is the discrimination of people with disabilities, and our language is full of words and phrases that perpetrate this type of discrimination. Common terms that you use frequently, even daily, are ableist and contribute to the lesser treatment of individuals with disabilities. Common terms to avoid include:

  • Addict or alcoholic;
  • Afflicted with, stricken with, suffers from, victim of, or any other terms that frame a disability as a disease or an inherently negative experience;
  • Any made-up words, such as “handicapable”;
  • Any sort of slur related to someone’s disability;
  • Blind;
  • Crazy, deranged, insane, loony or lunatic, mad, maniac, nuts, psycho;
  • Crippled;
  • Dwarf, little person, or midget;
  • Dumb, idiotic, or stupid;
  • Handicapped;
  • Lame;
  • Normal or healthy when describing someone who doesn’t have a disability;
  • Special needs or specially-abled;
  • Using collective nouns to refer to a group of people with disabilities, such as “the disabled”;
  • Wheelchair-bound.

Instead of these terms, always try to use neutral language when talking about a disability or someone who has a disability. Be as specific as possible and talk about the specific diagnosis or condition if possible. “Someone living with,” “someone diagnosed with,” or “someone who has” are often accepted by most people. However, you should always ask someone what terminology they personally prefer.

Gender and Sexual Orientation

You must also be mindful of your language when it comes to gender and sexual orientation. Even when using everyday terms and grammar, it’s all too easy to exclude or discriminate against people who aren’t cisgender or heterosexual. And just as with age, class, and disability, it is illegal to discriminate against someone because of their gender or sexual orientation.

Common words and phrases to avoid include:

  • Any sort of slur related to someone’s gender or sexual orientation;
  • Biological sex;
  • Chairman;
  • He/his as generic pronouns for all people, regardless of gender;
  • Ladies and gentlemen;
  • Mankind;
  • Manpower;
  • Opposite sex.

More inclusive alternatives include:

  • Assigned sex;
  • Chair or chairperson;
  • All assembled, colleagues, everyone, or folks;
  • Humanity or people;
  • Other sex;
  • They/them/those;
  • Workforce.

Traditionally, in Western society, gender has been thought of as a binary, men and women, with the assumption that people are exclusively attracted to someone of the “opposite” gender. However, there are many different genders and sexualities, and it’s important to respect those individuals. You should never assume someone’s gender or sexual orientation based on how they look, act, or present themselves. Instead, ask what their personal pronouns are and be sure to use them.

Further, be gender-inclusive with your language. Many titles and occupations — such as “mailman” or “policeman” — exclude people who do that particular job but are not men. “Mailperson” or “police officer” are better alternatives. Similarly, use “they” in lieu of “he or she” as generic pronouns, even if referring to a single person. Gender-specific language is largely unnecessary and you can avoid it in most contexts, especially if you are unsure or unaware of someone’s gender and preferred pronouns. If you do know someone’s gender, be sure to use gendered language and their pronouns when talking to or about them.

Power-Based Interpersonal Violence

Power-based interpersonal violence (PBIV) refers to any kind of violence in which one person uses their power to maintain control or hurt another person. This includes bullying, child abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse, harassment, human trafficking, sexual assault, and stalking. It’s important to be aware of how you discuss PBIV and people who have experienced it, as it can be an incredibly traumatic experience. Terms to avoid include:

  • Accused, alleged, or claimed;
  • Admitted or confessed;
  • Dispute, lover’s quarrel, or love triangle;
  • Sex, flirting, or other terms that minimize the severity of the behavior when discussing sexual assault or harassment;
  • Victim.

Inclusive and more empowering alternatives include:

  • Experienced, said, or shared;
  • Reported;
  • Someone who has been affected by or who has experienced PBIV;
  • Survivor, only if the individual personally prefers this term.

Be sure to use active voice instead of passive voice when discussing PBIV; for example, you should say “He assaulted her” rather than “She was assaulted.” Passive voice removes responsibility and accountability from the person who perpetrated the violence and places blame on the person who was affected by their behavior. Always believe someone when they tell you that they have experienced PBIV, and offer to get them help if they need or want it.

Race and Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity also require mindfulness, care, and attention during your routine workplace interactions. You should always avoid stereotyping people due to their ethnicity, race, or skin color; there are myriad offensive and untrue racial stereotypes that have contributed to decades of prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Terms you should avoid include:

  • Any kind of racial or ethnic slur;
  • Arabs, Caucasian, Orientals, and other outdated terms;
  • Foreigners;
  • Minority;
  • Mixed race or mulatto;
  • Using the name of a continent instead of the country, such as saying “Asian” instead of “Chinese,” when referring to someone;
  • Visible or racial minority.

More inclusive alternatives include:

  • Bi- or multi-racial individuals;
  • International people;
  • People or person of color;
  • Using adjectives, not nouns, when referring to someone’s race or ethnicity, such as “a Mexican person” instead of “a Mexican”.

Similar to disability and gender, everyone has their own preferred terms when it comes to their racial and ethnic identities. Always respect someone’s preferences, and don’t assume that other people of the same race or ethnicity will have the same preference. Additionally, never assume someone’s race or ethnicity based solely on their looks; if it’s absolutely necessary to the subject at hand, ask them instead.

Religion

Christianity is the most popular religion in the United States, but almost one-third of the population believes in a non-Christian faith or doesn’t have any sort of religious affiliation. In the workplace, you must be accepting of all different beliefs, even if they directly contradict your own. Alienating or potentially offensive terms to avoid include:

  • Anno Domini (AD) and before Christ (BC) when labeling years;
  • Saying a specific religious holiday to indicate a time of the year or season;
  • Saying “Merry Christmas” to someone without knowing their religious affiliation;
  • Using the word “church” to mean any place of worship.

More inclusive alternatives include:

  • Common Era (CE) and Before Common Era (BCE) when labeling years;
  • Saying the month or season to indicate a certain time of year;
  • Saying “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” when you don’t know someone’s religious affiliation;
  • Using the term “place of worship” or “house of prayer”.

Don’t assume that other people believe in some form of Christianity or that they share your faith. Making and acting on these kinds of assumptions could result in religious discrimination and cause other people to feel offended, excluded, or unsafe at work.

Size

Sometimes called size discrimination, body shaming, or fat-shaming, sizeism refers to discrimination against someone based on their size. Typically, this type of discrimination occurs when someone is larger, especially in terms of their weight. A growing body of research — and a growing number of people — understand just how harmful sizeism is to health. Like other forms of discrimination, it’s all too easy to perpetrate sizeism with your language. Common terms to avoid sizeism include:

  • Fatty;
  • Obese or obesity;
  • Overweight;
  • Pig or piggy;
  • Using any word to indicate that having more weight is an insult or something to be ashamed of.

More inclusive terms include:

  • Fat, as an adjective with no negative connotations;
  • Larger bodied;
  • Person of size;
  • Plus-size.

In the workplace, there is probably no acceptable situation or circumstance in which you need to discuss someone’s size or weight, either to their face or to someone else. To be as respectful as possible, it’s best to avoid commenting on someone’s appearance altogether.

The way we speak comes to us naturally, and it can be difficult to suddenly change the way you communicate. You have to go against unconscious beliefs and deeply-ingrained ideas, and it will take constant and continual effort to make these adjustments. However, it’s a simple and highly effective way to make your workplace, and the world at large, a better place for everyone.

Additional Resources and Further Reading

For more information on inclusive language, why it matters, and how to use it, consult the following organizations and resources:

 

  • Disability Language Style Guide: This style guide covers nearly 200 different terms to help journalists and writers refer to people with disabilities in an acceptable, non-offensive way.
  • GLAAD Media Reference Guide: This style guide covers terms related to the LGBTQ community and is designed to help journalists and writers refer to this community and its members “with fairness, integrity, and respect” in their writing.
  • UnderstandingPrejudice.org: This website is home to more than 2,000 links to various resources with information related to prejudice, its causes, and its consequences.