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Inclusive workplace language: being more thoughtful about the words we use

Words matter. This is certainly true in service design. Here at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), we try to use words that people use. It helps make the services we create more inclusive and easier to understand.

Lately, we’ve also been paying more attention to the words we use while we work on those services. From our earliest days, our Slackbot piped up every time somebody typed “guys”. It would suggest a gender-neutral alternative like “folks” or “peeps”. Why? Because we want everyone, regardless of their gender, to feel like they belong. Language plays a big part in that.

Power in words

Words and expressions we use in our day-to-day work can challenge clichés like “actions speak louder than words” and that old schoolyard defence “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. The truth is words can be deeds; words can hurt.

Much of the language we use overlooks history and white supremacist, colonialist, patriarchal thinking. We don’t always acknowledge that language has historically been used by groups of people in positions of power to trivialize and negate identity and to oppress. In her book Beloved, Toni Morrison reminds us that “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

Rethinking common terms

Recently, I realized that a phrase I was using to describe a workplace strategy was problematic. You likely know the “good cop, bad cop” technique. One person in the meeting will be difficult, the other friendly and reasonable by comparison.

This past year, the meaning behind my words clicked for me (and, yes, I wish it had clicked earlier). In a moment of growing public attention to police violence and its vastly disproportionate impact on Black people, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, and people of colour, this was a violent metaphor. The bad cop is intimidating, threatening, and quite often violent. Their goal is to use fear to extract what they want — perhaps some information or a confession. And even the so-called good cop in the scenario is “in” on the manipulation. This wasn’t an acceptable workplace metaphor.

The tech industry has its own set of problematic terms, like using the terms “master and slave”. Many people are rightly upset about that phrasing because it ignores the history of those words: a master (historically a kidnapper) controls a slave (historically a hostage).

The terms “whitelist” and “blacklist” are similarly problematic because positive connotation is assigned to “white” and negative to “black” — a common pattern. If these terms are simply trying to say “permitted list” and “blocked list”, why not just use those words instead?

Being more mindful about the words we use

Our language has more impact than we realize. If we take the time to learn about it, we’re better equipped to choose more inclusive language. When we’re mindful of history, we’re less likely to perpetuate its harms.

Making these changes can be relatively straightforward, no matter how long you’ve been using the previous terms. I stopped writing (and saying) “guys” pretty quickly with help of those friendly and automated prompts from Slackbot.

In an effort to be more mindful, here’s a list of common workplace words that we’re trying to take out of our vocabulary at CDS.

Progress over perfection

We don’t expect immediate perfection. Just last month I accidentally used “whitelist” and am grateful that a colleague corrected me. If we choose progress over perfection, we and our organizations can be more inclusive.

If you’re also working on being more mindful of your words, here are some strategies we use:

  • When you make a mistake, correct it immediately and move on.

  • Do your own work to learn why some heinous words are widespread and so easy to repeat.

  • If you find that you accidentally keep using a term, find a buddy to keep you accountable.

  • When you speak, be more conscious of how your words are impacting people. Check for silences, sighs, or tense body language.

There’s some wisdom in “actions speak louder than words”. Empty words don’t do anyone much good. But language is not empty; it carries the weight of history. While we can’t change history, we can thoughtfully use our words to help make today more inclusive than it was yesterday.