30th Jun 2021
3 Min Read

Talking turkey: inclusive language lessons

Elle Bradley-Cox
Elle Bradley-Cox
IC & Engagement

Is LGBT+ enough or do we need to remember all the letters every time we speak or write? It’s an ongoing conundrum. But language matters, particularly when it comes to people’s identity. We’ve heard from comms pros at both ends of the criticism spectrum – those with not enough clarity and those accused of going too far. So how do we get this right? It deserves debate, so we asked different members of our team to talk turkey and tell us what they really think.

Elle Bradley-Cox, senior writer and editor

Each business is unique, and so each solution should be unique to that business. But whatever you do, for goodness’ sake BE CONSISTENT. Consult with a strong representation of members of your team, agree a resolution and get it in a style guide. Please.

Russ Norton, D&I engagement lead

Acronyms cause fear. Whether at work or in the news, throwing around lists of letters automatically disengages the people who don’t fully understand what they mean.

Worse, they can cause resentment towards the people or topics represented by those letters. Despite being extended in an effort to include more aspects of the non-heterosexual community, the acronym ‘LGBTQIA+’ is now being mockingly replaced with ‘the alphabet mafia’.

From my perspective as a gay man and an internal communicator, there are a couple of important points to consider when using this kind of terminology:

  • It’s more important to understand and explain that sexual orientation is a vast spectrum and that love in all its forms – including heterosexual love – is a beautiful thing
  • Help people to break down the buzzword and offer people an explainer of the acronym in case they do come across it
  • Stonewall has an excellent glossary you can use to help define the different aspects of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Dr Alex Gapud, consultant and cultural anthropologist

It’s tricky – these terms are such an integral part of who we are that the stakes are high. On top of that, inclusive language is always evolving. So I can see why some people are careful about getting too prescriptive on what words to use or avoid.

My advice? Make sure that whatever decisions you make in your organisation are collaborative. From an anthropological perspective, this is very much about power: who has the right to say what – and who can make decisions about the language people use to talk about themselves.

Making decisions without representation and consultations adds insult to injury by reinforcing an unequal power structure that has historically disenfranchised people from diverse backgrounds.

Annique Simpson, senior consultant

Language matters. It signifies who or what is valued in your organisation. It helps build and break communities – be they formal teams or friendship groups. It’s also fluid and driven by changes to social groups within and outside of work.

If you want to leverage the power of language to create inclusive environments, be committed to learning, regularly consult with affected employees about appropriate terminology and accept that people within the same social group may not use the same language to describe themselves – and that’s OK. If you offend someone – which you will at some point – listen to them, acknowledge your role in causing them pain, and outline your plan to resolve the situation.

Also, remember that as societal and language changes go hand-in-hand – if you take an agile approach to your corporate language, it’ll go a long way.

Alastair Atkinson, consultancy lead

Many organisations are currently agonising over one language-related issue in particular: whether people should include pronouns in their email signatures or social media bios (eg Alastair Atkinson [he/him]).

Advocates of the practice see it as a genuine attempt to help people identify themselves in a way that’s meaningful to them. Furthermore, it can help avoid awkwardness by giving colleagues a clear steer on how individuals would like to be addressed. However, many women have raised the point that they’ve spent much of their professional lives trying not to be defined by their gender; adding pronouns to every outgoing communication therefore feels retrograde.

As with many decisions of this kind, consultation is helpful. Before issuing an edict from the top, however well intentioned, seek a range of views from across your organisation. Also consider giving people the choice of whether to amend their email signatures; it might be worth sacrificing consistency for the sake of respecting individual opinions. Whatever you decide, communicate clearly and honestly about your rationale. If you can help people on all sides of the argument understand a decision, there’s more chance they’ll accept it, even if they don’t entirely agree with it.

Any more for any more?

What are the problems you’re trying to solve in your organisation? Get in touch.

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