Language is powerful: How can we use words as an everyday act of compassion & inclusion?

By Genevieve Smith, Ishita Rustagi & Julia Nee

Language is powerful

Because language can impact how people feel and think, it can lead people to feel a whole range of emotions, from compassion and belonging to discrimination and harm. One study shows, for example, that when people were described using euphemistic terms like “has special needs,” they were viewed more negatively than when described by more inclusive alternatives like “has a disability” or “is blind.” Using the terms that reflect and honor an individual or a group’s identity can foster positive feelings of being seen and respected for who we are. In many cases, harmful terms are not used with harmful intent, but they can still get in the way of effective communication. It can be difficult to focus on the message being communicated when you’re also busy wrestling with why a harmful term was used.

The inclusive language glossary and framework

Inclusive language can help people communicate in ways that are respectful and minimize harm. But given that we each have our own experiences and perspectives informed by unique social and cultural environments, we also recognize that the same set of words may not share the same meaning or context for everyone. That is why we developed a set of four guiding principles to outline what’s core to all inclusive language:

  • Conveys respect to all people.
  • Communicates a message effectively through precise language.
  • Acknowledges diversity.
  • Involves continual improvement.
  1. Does this term avoid centering dominant groups as the default and avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes?
  2. Does this term avoid evoking harmful histories and/or avoid relying on a comparison that’s rooted in bias (particularly for metaphors)?
  3. Does this term contribute to communication in which everyone feels respected and seen?
  4. Does this term convey the intended meaning to all people precisely and effectively?
  5. Can we find an alternate term that does a better job at communicating the intended message?

Call to action

Language continues to change over time, so it’s important to remember that advancing inclusive language means being committed to continual growth. Fortunately, we each have the power and opportunity with every new day to ask: How can I communicate more inclusively and precisely? Ultimately, advancing inclusive language comes back to staying curious, centering empathy, and making everyday language choices that help us understand one another.

--

--

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL)

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.