Throughout everyday life, we absorb everything we see around us, and the language used by our favorite brands filters down into our own vocabulary. Seeing The Dixie Chicks’ drop the “Dixie” from their name and sports teams like The Washington Redskins embrace a rebrand reinforces the fact that people are becoming more aware of the importance of language and conscious of connotations.
We must make a conscious effort to do better, listen to and include each other, to begin making use of language that is inclusive to all.
A few weeks ago, Twitter announced it was taking steps toward eliminating “racially loaded” coding terms, like master and slave, in favor of more inclusive language, in a move that was accelerated by the Black Lives Matter movement. For Twitter, this meant no longer using historical programming language that contains racist terms, to prevent microaggressions and general ignorance in the office, and ultimately create a more inclusive environment for all employees. But often, it can be hard to spot these uses of language in everyday contexts. How do we know when something is offensive? How can we spot the use of such language, and is it worth derailing a meeting or potentially offending a client to point out the use of such language?
While it’s great to see a large corporation like Twitter make adjustments to coding phrases that were created long ago, every business should take this time as an opportunity to look inward at their own marketing copy, internal communications and other forms of communication to take similar steps to improve language choices.
There are common ways people (perhaps unknowingly) misuse language all the time, like using gendered terms like actress, when actor is a term that encompasses both genders (e.g., Nicole Kidman and Eugene Levy are well-respected actors). Another is people assuming that a CEO is a man.
But there are also ways that language is a lot more subliminal, and we use it without even realizing that we are contributing to these microaggressions ourselves. One of the most famous examples is Sheryl Sandberg’s callout of the word “bossy” to describe women in business, whereas this is very rarely used for men. Nicki Minaj famously said the same, talking about how the actions she learned from her mentor Lil Wayne were considered “bitchy” when she did them, and yet he was widely regarded as being “bossed up” for doing the same.
For marketers, coming to grips with language can be simple. Rather than looking to eliminate offensive terms, seek to replace them with inclusive ones. For gender nonconforming, trans or nonbinary people, using a simple phrase that doesn’t rely on gender, such as “for someone special,” as opposed to “for him” or “for her,” can make a world of difference. Switching out a gendered collective term like “guys” for a nongendered collective term like “everyone” (or my favorite: “Hey, y’all!”) takes a simple look at a thesaurus. It really is that easy. Simple phrases like these go unnoticed to many but can create hugely loyal customers out of people who feel unseen elsewhere.
It can be argued that language is subjective and therefore, it’s hard to know which words to use. What is offensive to some may be overlooked by others, but tools and browser extensions can eliminate this subjectivity and alert writers to words that could be misconstrued, inconsiderate or unequal. By flagging words that could be deemed offensive in certain contexts and suggesting choices that are more inclusive, copy can be created without fear of misinterpretation.
The more brands are inclusive, the more they reach out and back certain groups of society—whether that is people with disabilities, people of color or the queer community—the more that these people will feel accepted in society. But for that to happen, it takes effort from all of us. And as marketers, we can start by taking small steps, like using inclusive language.