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

By Genevieve Smith, Ishita Rustagi & Julia Nee

The discussion around how language impacts belonging and inclusion frequently ends up focusing on extreme viewpoints: an eagerness to remove potentially harmful terms from our vocabularies, or feeling hesitant to give up words that we find important. But regardless of how we react, we share something in common: the desire to understand and be understood by others, and the fear that the current norms around language will prevent us from doing so.

What if we focus on what we have in common as we consider what it looks like to use more inclusive language? Instead of thinking of inclusive language as a set of right and wrong ways to speak, we have the opportunity to think of this as a process through which we reflect on what our language choices mean to us, how our words might be interpreted by others, and whether we’re communicating what we aim to communicate.

Language can be a powerful tool that pushes us toward unity — or division. How we frame people — “us” or “them” — can deeply affect how we view each other. Think about how we talk about sports: when fans cheer “We won!” they build a sense of community around that “we,” even though they weren’t on the field. On the other extreme, framing others as less than human — rats, cockroaches, illegals — has led to dehumanization, violence, and even genocide.

Understanding the power of language, we at the Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership (EGAL) at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business launched a project with support from Google to learn more about inclusive language. The EGAL team conducted a systematic literature review to better understand the many dimensions of inclusive language. Then, in conjunction with a working group of academics, practitioners, and activists, the EGAL team developed an “inclusive language framework” to help people think about inclusive language and how it can improve communication. We then used this framework to build out an “inclusive language glossary,” which identifies terms that might be harmful, explains why, and provides more inclusive alternatives for better communication.

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.

By thinking about the impact of our words and moving towards more inclusive alternatives, we increase the impact of what we say, and create a larger audience of people who may want to hear us. While improving language for equity and inclusion is about more than just words (see more in EGAL’s playbook on equitable language), we created new resources that focus on word choice as a starting point.

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:

Inclusive language:

  • Conveys respect to all people.
  • Communicates a message effectively through precise language.
  • Acknowledges diversity.
  • Involves continual improvement.

Building on these principles, and in conjunction with the working group mentioned above, we developed an inclusive language framework to help people think about whether a word may be harmful and how to identify inclusive alternatives. The framework asks:

  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?

We used this framework to better understand why some terms might cause harm and to uncover more inclusive alternatives. We considered the impact of each term in a variety of contexts to better understand when the term might be inclusive and when another alternative could be more effective. Take the following sentence: “My colleague was completely off the reservation in the way he spoke to his subordinate.” Because “off the reservation” can be linked to settler-colonial practices of restricting Indigenous groups’ movements to reservations, it evokes a harmful history. This phrase may not contribute to communication in which everyone feels respected and seen, particularly as Indigenous people who have been affected by this history may feel that their perspective is being ignored. And importantly, there is an alternate term that does better: “My colleague was completely out of line in the way he spoke to his subordinate.”

The framework served as the basis to develop a glossary of about 65 commonly-used terms that can be harmful, along with our analysis — backed up by resources uncovered through our literature review — of why and in which contexts they may be harmful, as well as suggestions for more inclusive alternatives. This glossary is meant to be a reference point for folks seeking to understand more about how to work towards making their day-to-day language more inclusive.

Importantly, our focus is on improving communication and empowering people to speak inclusively every day. This work is not about memorizing a set of “do not use” words because context matters greatly. In some cases, words may be considered harmful but not in others. For example, words that have historically been used as slurs or insults against groups can be reclaimed by those groups and used as terms of empowerment. Take the word “bossy” — often used as an insult against ambitious women — which has been reclaimed by many women as an indication of their power. As another example, some disabled people prefer disability-first language, which centers their disability as part of their identity, while others prefer person-first language, which centers their personhood. Depending on who you’re talking to or about, one term could be more inclusive than the other. Because language is so context-dependent, our framework and glossary are meant to help people think about whether they’re using an effective word in a given context and help people build critical thinking skills related to language and word use.

You can find the word glossary and framework on our site.

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.



Center for Equity, Gender & 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.