Language matters. Who. Why.
As I started to gather my thoughts about this blog post, I Initially wanted to write about inclusion and diversity in general. Surely, we all agree that inclusion and diversity matters. And in “we”, I am referring to our own witty.works inclusive language community, underrepresented groups, Diversity and Inclusion representatives in businesses, and people in general who support an inclusive and diverse society. Approaches differ when it comes to applying inclusion methods and strategies that aim to make diversity work.
Today I’d like to share my thoughts on a key inclusion strategy – the use of language. And by doing so, I will promote the method of applying inclusive language to leverage its potential to the fullest. In its essence, the purpose of language is to facilitate communication between people. What we say, who we say it to, when, and how we say it makes a difference - because language matters.
Reflection. Speech. Action.
My favourite meaning of Sankofa , the Adinkra symbol of the Akan in Ghana, represented by a bird with its head turned backward while its feet face forward carrying a precious egg in its mouth, is “learn from the past to build the future”. This applies to language as well, to the extent that it is a product of its history and the representation of the Zeitgeist. Just like Sankofa, language evolves, drawing from the past, as it grows and continuously adapts. We constantly come up with new expressions that reflect who we are and the context we live in (upbringing, socialization, culture, education, the influence of the media, and so on).
What about stereotypes? Whenever we communicate, we unintentionally apply stereotypical patterns. The above-mentioned context we live in instills stereotypes. Unfortunately, stereotypes are as sticky as gum to our shoes and it’s hard to get rid of them. I often find that when we communicate, more than too often we forget that it’s not only about what we intend to say, but also about how what we say is perceived.
It’s crucial to emphasize that we usually say and write things without bad intentions. Nobody is free of prejudice and this is something we all have to come to terms with. Our brain loves to cut corners, which is a basic necessity. The Nobel prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, discovered that 95% of our actions are executed unconsciously. As marvellous and efficient as our brain might be, it has to deal with more than 11 million pieces of information every second. Just think about it, every single second. The brain manages to perceive around 40 pieces of information per second but can “only” process 5 to 7 consciously. To handle this influx of data, the brain applies patterns as a natural tendency for simplification.
This tells us that we have to consider our behaviour and understand that language can also be a trap. How often do we apply our very own perception of the world and generalize when we speak to people? Well, it’s more of speaking at people, with an obscure understanding of who they are, even though it is just a projection and has nothing to do with them. In the introduction of her book “die Erschöpfung der Frauen” (the exhaustion of women), Franziska Schutzbach comments on the following: “I do not use the term women as a fixed homogeneous category because there are no women.” She goes on to say: “I understand woman and female as historical attributions and constructs that have emerged in connection with social, cultural and biological dimensions”. In other words, although generalizing might be useful at times, very often it simply means we thereby forget who we are specifically talking to.
Going back to Sankofa, first of all, we should reflect on where we come from, which in this case means acknowledging and becoming aware of our own unconscious biases. After that, it’s all about where we are headed and what we want to do about our stereotypical patterns. That said, good intentions are not good enough. We have to act on them. Remember, we might not be responsible for our biases but we certainly are accountable for what we do against them. Hold up a mirror, reflect, speak.
Happy You. Happy Me.
It’s a simple formula really, “Happy you. Happy me.” but very difficult to live by. Health, Mobility, New Work, Globalization, Individualization, Age of knowledge, Connectivity, Security, Urbanization, Diversity and Inclusion are the megatrends of the next 50 years. Societies and enterprises for that matter have to tackle multiple challenges on various levels. Not to mention all of the inclusion dimensions, especially since the world is becoming more and more openly diverse.
Let’s bring our attention to Marketing and Inclusion and the question related to the challenges we face: how can organizations keep up with emerging and shifting identities within and beyond gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, religion, age, education, socioeconomic status, or disability? How can they meet standards such as the ESG criteria or the United Nations Sustainable Development goals? As companies strive to attract more and more customers it seems likely that it will be increasingly difficult to do so. We know that marketers usually only reach 60% of their so-called target groups. Leaving aside the fact that I never liked to describe people as targets, breaching the gap of 40% is pivotal.
Undoubtedly, inclusive language is the key to making sure that a message comes across not just to the 60% but also the 40%. That 40% are left out because the language was deterrent and ostracizing thereby not avoiding harmful and offensive codes and messages - even if unintentionally. We can overcome these impediments by consciously learning to use inclusive language whilst fostering self-improvement in doing so. Yes, we are all the same – at least in the way we’re different from each other.
I do not want to be discriminated against. Nobody does. Since I want to be spoken to, speak to me and mean it. I want to understand what you’re telling me. So please, include me in what you have to say because including me means I belong. And belonging means being cared for and being cared for means one trusts.
Organizations need to create an environment that supports and encourages diverse realities. And by doing so, they simultaneously will reach or even exceed their tangible goals. McKinsey, conducted a study in 2019 with 1000 companies in 15 countries. They learned that companies are more innovative and successful the more diverse their workforce. “Happy you. Happy me.”, thanks to diversity.
Last year I joined witty.works for the simplest of reasons: I believed in what they did. Ever since my conviction has increased. Even though I have always been very sensitive about discriminatory remarks, as subtle as they might have been, I feel that I have grown and become even more aware of the extent of the damage language causes with its stereotypes. I am not sure if you know this but witty.works started as a consulting company and used to offer training and awareness sessions on unconscious bias to help organizations become more inclusive and diverse. Bringing across an awareness for inclusive language was always eye-opening and much appreciated but more than too often, not much came of it. This was backed by studies that quintessentially said, if what is learned is not applied, then change won’t happen. It was time to start thinking about how to support organizations in becoming sustainably inclusive.
A conversation I had with my dear friend Manu Kapur, Professor for learning science at ETH Zurich, about embodied learning and its neural effects confirmed our assumption in hindsight. In short embodied learning means physically doing something that leads to a greater learning effect. Applying what we learn in our case means inclusive writing almost seamlessly leads to behavioural change. As a consequence, Witty was developed.
Witty is a browser plugin that makes inclusive writing possible at any given time for anyone (for private use, for newsletters, social media posts and communication in general, hiring, employer branding, everyday internal business communication, and so on). Witty is therefore the bridge between good intentions and making a difference in building a sustainable and successful inclusive culture – for and with customers and the workforce alike - for us as people in general.
There’s one last important point I’d like to make: writing inclusively has nothing to do with restricting language or cornering people skeptical about inclusive language, quite the opposite. It means opening up to others and rediscovering language which is the most exciting and rewarding journey! It’s a complex world we live in, to state the obvious and ignorance might not be a choice. But remaining ignorant certainly is. So why don’t we just make a difference with inclusive language? Thanks for reading, thanks for listening, and thanks for sharing.
If you are looking for a digital writing assistant for inclusive language, try out Witty for free. Witty detects non-inclusive language and provides ongoing training on unconscious bias and operationalizes inclusion.