Last updated: 19 September, 2020
Language can be a potent force for good—or evil. It matters what we say, and how we say it. And writing matters even more than speech. Our words live on the page long after spoken words are forgotten.
Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to mistakenly cause offence. Unless you have access to an inclusivity or sensitivity reader, keeping track of every language change and how audiences will react to them is almost impossible. Even usually-sensitive people get it wrong. Think of Benedict Cumberbatch (known for campaigning for Syrian refugees) using the word ‘coloured’ instead of ‘black’ (recalling times when casual racism was part of everyday life).
Language changes. Words that were once acceptable may no longer be so. Race, gender, age, illness or disability and sexual preference were once all used to categorize individuals into groups – often with a pejorative subtext.
So why should writers – and organizations – be concerned with this? All writers, whether of fiction, academic text-books, business reports or marketing materials, are responsible for how they address marginalized groups. Choosing appropriate language adds to your credibility as a perceptive author, or as an honest and inclusive organization. It keeps the reader on your side, rather than causing them to shut the book or the promotional leaflet in irritation after the first few paragraphs. You, or your company, may have important things to say, but if you alienate a large portion of your readership then you won’t get the message across. You may even damage your brand.
However, it is not easy to get it right. What offends, insults and upsets one person may not matter to someone else. And let’s face it: some authors deliberately wish to give offence. Commentators and iconoclasts may want to do so to gain market attention and win a bigger audience. Novelists may use certain ‘offensive’ words to portray character, feelings, mental state or relationships. For the majority of writers and copy-editors, however, it is crucial to use the language that fits your target audience. Context is king.
How do you set up systems to stop potential linguistic, and ultimately commercial, disasters happening? Some organizations have turned to ‘sensitivity readers’ to check and correct their publications. Sensitivity readers are editors who check text specifically for internalized bias, as well as negatively-charged and context-inappropriate language. They usually work within their own area of specialist expertise (such as mental health, transgender issues, terminal illness etc), and are an outstanding way to ensure documents are inclusive.
However, not everyone has access to a sensitivity reader, especially when under time and budget pressure. So for writing in a business context, here are five things to remember to check.
Your latest publicity material blithely speaks of ‘the elderly’ – incurring the wrath of all the marathon-running 75-year-olds who immediately delete your website from their bookmarks. Referring to customers as ‘the elderly’ brings with it resonances of ‘weakness’ or ‘inactivity’. So think more carefully about the people you are targeting. Is it everyone of retirement age? Those of retirement age but who are still working, or are semi-retired? People over 65 or 70? All senior citizens? Any of these terms are better than dismissing your customers as ‘the elderly’. Moreover, upper age groups aren’t the only ones to be discriminated against. If that sounds strange, put yourself in the place of someone under 30 and imagine seeing lazy writing about millennials your entire life. Even if no harm is meant, think carefully before using terms that group individuals by age.
The word ‘man’ originally meant both an adult human (‘mankind’) and an adult male, but is now so closely identified with males that it seems to exclude females altogether. Gender is a particularly difficult issue for English speakers, as the language has no sex-neutral pronoun. In the past, ‘he/him/his’ was used as the default pronoun, but this is no longer acceptable. Instead, there are a number of strategies you can use to avoid gender bias: use neutral words (human beings, chairperson, businesspeople, firefighters) and avoid the ‘ess’ suffix. If appropriate to the context, alternate between masculine and feminine references; reword sentences to avoid having to use single-sex pronouns; and if you don’t like the ‘he/she’ or ‘s/he’ options (and who does?) use ‘they’. Don’t patronize women by calling them by their first name when you would call men by their surname: Jane is ‘Austen’, as long as William is ‘Shakespeare’. And finally, don’t use occupational stereotypes. Was it really necessary to identify this individual as a ‘female doctor’ or call the nurses all ‘she’?
References to ‘the disabled’, ‘the deaf’ or ‘the blind’ will offend thousands of people with disabilities who object to being negatively categorized as disadvantaged or victims. Phrases such as the ‘terminally ill’ or the ‘mentally ill’ are offensive because they define a group of people in terms of one particular feature rather than focusing on the individuals. People with disabilities are just people with particular needs and preferences, whom you should respect as active individuals with agency. So avoid the use of passive, victim-type words like ‘sufferer’, ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘mentally handicapped’. Ignore the disability, and focus on the individual. If writing for a business, keep in mind that all people are customers or readers: it’s just that this particular group may have a hearing impairment, may be wheelchair users, or may have a learning disability.
Many racial and ethnic groups prefer to be called by the name they have chosen themselves, such as Native Americans (USA) or First Nations (Canada). However, this is far from being a simple renaming issue. For example, some US citizens prefer to be called African–Americans, while others prefer ‘black’. Some people find the term ‘Jews’ offensive. If possible, try and establish what name your audience wishes to be known by. Above all, avoid out-of-date terms. Words such as ‘Orientals’ or ‘Chinamen’ are resonant of imperialism and racism – they are simply Chinese people.
Many words that were once regarded as shocking or taboo, are now acceptable in speech, and often in writing as well. While it is unlikely you will want to use even mild swearing in business publications, slang is a different matter. Slang is constantly shifting. Words such as ‘bogus’, ‘snob’ and ‘joke’ were all originally slang. In the right context slang can be appropriate. But slang has often been devised deliberately to exclude non-members of a particular group. Using slang badly can offend – or make you look ridiculous – so be aware of using slang terms that you do not completely understand.
All these potential pitfalls can be avoided by remembering one crucial thing: think about your audience as people, and emphasize their individuality, not any particular feature that they may (or may not) share, whether this be gender, race, sexuality, disability or ethnicity.
Attempting to manually check for all these issues is time-consuming. And if staff members aren’t completely aware of all the sensitivities involved, mistakes are bound to happen. A good way to minimize the chance of that is to automate checking for key terms.
As part of your organization’s document production, PerfectIt provides an instantaneous and very cost-effective way of identifying and eliminating words and phrases that need consideration. PerfectIt can be customized to identify words that could be regarded as offensive, and suggest alternatives. This free video tutorial (fast forward to 2m30s for specifics on sensitivity checks) shows you how to select terms that must be avoided in your documents.
Words matter. But there are simple ways to ensure that your business isn’t the one causing offence. Consider sensitivity readers, carry out manual checks, and use PerfectIt to help. Click to get a free trial of PerfectIt and start using it on your documents today.