It is likely most of us have embarrassed ourselves at one time or another by saying precisely the wrong thing:
“– She’s gorgeous. What’s her name?
– His name is James.”
Or perhaps you have not liked something someone else has said to you:
“– Is your husband going?
– I’m not married, I’m going with my sister.”
Have you ever stopped to think about the opportunities you may have missed, just because you said the wrong thing?
“– It’s always best to work with British companies, don’t you think?
– We’re proud of our Finnish heritage. If that’s your view, then I don’t think it makes sense for us to work together.”
Conversely, how often have you been successful because you’ve known how to adapt your communication to the situation and to your audience?
The way we communicate is a powerful tool that defines our interpersonal relations, our role in society and our future. Because of this, it is increasingly important – and demanded by the general population – for us to communicate in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone and doesn’t cause offence.
Communication has the power to shape attitudes, thought patterns and behaviour, reflecting the world we live in (and leaving its mark too). That’s why it’s important that language itself reflects the future we plan on living.
Whether you have this awareness (or plan on gaining it) in your personal life or not, it is essential to cultivate it in the workplace – communication and language are the tools most people use in their jobs (from the barista in the coffee shop to the marketing team, and from the transport department to IT). In the workplace, words and images should be planned carefully to ensure they are non-discriminatory and do not perpetuate stereotypes.
A stereotype is an opinion – positive or negative – about something, which is formed prior to actual experience and which isn’t based on facts or critical analysis. Stereotypes are often expressed with hostility and intolerance. At first it might seem difficult to communicate in a way that covers every difference of opinion so you don’t discriminate: however, it is possible!
When it comes to English, you’ll occasionally hear people using masculine pronouns (he, him or his) to refer to someone whose gender is unknown: but we need to try a little harder. To communicate inclusively, it is important that we:
– Neutralise or omit the person’s gender, by using “they” instead of “he” or “she” as a gender-neutral form, especially when we don’t know their gender;
– Use gender-neutral job titles (e.g. police officer, flight attendant, chairperson, firefighter, bartender or salesperson);
– Place more emphasis on the people themselves, rather than on defining them by a trait (e.g. nationality, culture, religion, age, skills or disability): e.g. “The actor, who has a bipolar disorder, began their career as a dentist” instead of “Like most others in that profession, the bipolar actor began their career as something else: in this case, surprisingly, as a dentist”.
Inclusive communication tries to use language free from stereotypes and humiliating, derogatory and discriminatory expressions, to ensure everyone feels included and appreciated.
In the age of images and video, audio-visual communication has become an important mechanism for inclusion thanks to the addition of: adapted subtitles for people with disabilities or other special needs; audio content; sign language; colour variations; and more types of graphics than we could ever have imagined. These tools enrich the message contained within the audio-visual media, and allow it to reach a much wider audience.
As well as adjusting the media format, we can contribute to inclusion by working on the content itself, shaping it to reflect the multitude of aspects of human diversity. For example, by:
– Taking care when matching images and text – avoiding stereotypes (is it really true all British people are obsessed with the royal family?);
– Making sure all of the following are equally visible:
Getting rid of all the stereotypes people may have based on someone’s appearance or behaviour is a difficult task for us humans. This is because we are used to categorising information and to seek patterns. However, we can try to make our written, oral and visual expression more inclusive by:
– Avoiding associations between images and ideas that perpetuate stereotypes, so the receivers of the message create new images and do not make hasty, limiting and limited associations;
– Trying to ensure everyone in society feels represented.
Inclusive communication (which still has a long way to go) is an large and delicate subject that tries to find ways to include more people every day.