The New Lexicon of Language Landmines – what you can and can’t say

By Brendan Courtney

Posted on 4 August 2023

Award-winning TV presenter, broadcaster and DEI keynote speaker Brendan Courtney examines inclusive language – what it is, why it matters, what you can say (and what you can’t!).

I’ve always been fascinated by language. By its ability to empower people, to drive home a point, make a sales pitch, a statement or communicate something important.

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Recently, this fascination has taken a more academic turn, with the study of workplace language forming a key part of my MBA in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: the first in Europe of its kind.

Gen Xers like me will recognise the phrase ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’. The message here is clear: “language is irrelevant as long as nobody’s physically attacking you.”.

But today, everywhere we look, we see a new recognition of the relevance of language and its ability to both hurt and heal.

There is a general awakening across society: what you say really matters.

The problem

This growing awareness has coincided with an increased ability to use language to either offend or to take offence.

The online environment – a wild west that wasn’t there when I started out as a TV presenter and producer 25 years ago – provides a perfect platform for this new language dysfunction, because it runs on the principle of confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias – where we feel something about an issue and tend to look positively at anything that affirms or confirms our biases – is how we sell advertising on the Internet.

It’s how we engage on the Internet. It’s essentially where algorithms have taken us (what the internet has become).

Mix Diversity - The New Lexicon of Language Landmines

And yet we use the Internet to discuss division of beliefs around important cultural phenomena, laying unprecedentedly fertile ground for people to find offence on behalf of others.

The Entitlement Sandwich

Over the years, I’ve noticed language being used as a powder keg at two ends of the age spectrum in particular: I call it the Entitlement Sandwich.

Mix Diversity - The New Lexicon of Language Landmines

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 to 1964) are avid Internet users, but don’t always understand that, for example, when they make a Facebook comment, it’s not just the recipient who will see it. They use language freely, not understanding that their choice of words (and Profile) is seen by every single person that’s looking at the same thing.

I know from my own experience working in television in Ireland – if an inexperienced person makes a comment and I pop up under their comment and say “Oh, hi”, they’ll get a real fright. They also, perhaps, have less of an understanding of the algorithms and confirmation bias at work behind the scenes.

Younger users (Millennials and younger), who use their phones as a second brain, have a deeper understanding of the freedom of the Internet and are utterly fearless about what they say online.

They know they can’t be caught or penalised for being toxic on TikTok, so say whatever they want without fear of repercussions.

The problem with this is that we’re not using the Internet just for fun. We are using it as the primary platform to discuss huge, complex issues like gender identity, social injustice and sexism.

These two generations have a lot to learn from each other. Generation X, who are online but remember a professional life before the internet, is in the middle of the sandwich going,

Ok people! Stop! We need to have a proper conversation about this.

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With UK adults spending an average of 2 hours a day on social media, it’s inevitable that this trend – of using language to take and give offence, to include and exclude – finds its way into other areas of our lives, including our home and workplaces.

So, when it comes to using language appropriately, we have a lot of work to do. The good news is we’re starting to understand the way confirmation bias works and this awareness, alongside an understanding of the power of language, can start to break the cycle, and quickly. As with all problems, awareness is the start to finding a solution. A great place to begin is at work, but we have to overcome our fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ before we can truly start to make a difference.

Language without fear in the workplace

If we work in a diverse work environment and want to find out about people we work with, it’s common to be afraid to speak because of online tropes and Cancel Culture. We’re even afraid of being labelled ‘woke’; a hijacked term that’s now more likely to be levelled at someone as an insult than a compliment. Personally, I’m a big advocate for reclaiming “woke” – it’s a great word. To quote Kathy Burke,

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If it means I’m not racist or homophobic then I’m staying wide awake.

It means an awareness to live with tolerance and kindness.

When it comes to navigating inclusive language, it can feel as if we’re sticking our heads above the parapet and will get shot down by all those noisy people we’ve seen online with extreme views.

Cancel culture is the pitchfork of woke. But perhaps it’s not as much of a battlefield out there as we think.

Because people with extreme views are noisy, it’s easy to believe there are more of them than they are. A recent study looked at negative noise on Twitter. It found that only 7-9% of posts related to extreme views, and 90% to 91% of people were simply reading news, sharing pictures and sharing opinions about issues that were not aggressive.

The truth is, most people are not attempting to cause fires or damage online, but are trying to use the Internet in a positive way. I find, when it comes to addressing fears around inclusive language at work, this kind of calms people down a bit. I also tell people: be woke in the workplace, and don’t be afraid to say so.

My advice – to anyone fearful of asking colleagues or employees questions – is to go ahead and ask, but be appropriate about how you ask. Here are some guidelines on asking appropriately.

1. Do you really need to know?

Firstly and most importantly: do you really need to ask someone’s age, how much they earn, their sexual practices or their prayer or religious practices? Closely examine your reasons for asking before you say anything – is your question designed to satisfy your own biases?

2. Ask to ask

Before you start asking someone questions about something personal, find a private moment and ask if they wouldn’t mind if you ask them questions.

Mix Diversity - The New Lexicon of Language Landmines

In my own experience as a gay man, I’ve found this approach very inclusive: if somebody wants to know more about your lifestyle in a positive way, it means they’re interested in you. That’s nice. Do not ask questions in a full room or a business meeting that are in any way of any personal matter.

Mix Diversity - The New Lexicon of Language Landmines

3. Google it

If you can Google the answer to something, pick up your phone and Google it first.

4. State your pronouns to help pave the way

A lot of people are confused (and even irritated) by pronouns. If you’re comfortable in the gender that’s assigned to you at birth, why bother to identify it on an email or LinkedIn profile?

A trans woman who’s a friend of mine expressed the importance of pronouns brilliantly. She said,

Because if I read your email and it states your pronouns, I know that you’re going to be open to me having my pronouns, and that just makes me feel a whole lot more safe and more welcome.

The point is, expressing your pronouns isn’t about you. Pronouns literally just demonstrate your allyship; showing you’re open and non-judgmental. It means that somebody who does have a self-identified gender, that you may not know or understand, will know that you are an ally.

That is a key element to facilitating the use of and using pronouns. They express allyship. For an LGBTQ+ person like me, if I see an email that identifies the writer’s pronouns, I know immediately that they are going to be an ally.

This opens the door for more candid and open conversations and, ultimately, a more inclusive and comfortable workplace.

5. Know when to ask

A big problem around language is people using it inappropriately in the social environment after work. My advice is: keep it professional. Ask yourself – do I need to know this? Would it be appropriate to ask this in the office?

Mix Diversity - The New Lexicon of Language Landmines

The business case for inclusive language

Using inclusive language paves the way for an inclusive workplace. And inclusive workplaces make better businesses.

A recent piece of research by a global marketing company illustrates this. Called in to urgently address a fall in sales from a core market for a global sport shoe (trainer) company, the researchers interviewed 2,500 women aged 13-23 across the whole of California. They found that those women, particularly within the 13-17 age bracket, habitually Google the board of a company before they make a purchase. If the board is not diverse and they don’t actively use pronouns, they no longer buy that product.

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Your sophisticated young customer, your next generation customer, wants to know that you are non judgmental, open and inclusive.

Aside from customers, your best brand advocates are your employees. Designing an inclusive recruitment process will help you attract the best talent from the widest pool. Embedding inclusive practices deeply within your organisation will help you retain the staff you employ, because they’ll feel like they belong. If employees are happy at work, they are more creative and productive.

A happy team makes you a more attractive employer, which feeds back into being able to attract the best talent. Being inclusive is not just the right thing to do; it’s now a business imperative.

3 steps to detonating the language landmine

We’re all learning. There’s constant evolution in terms of inclusive rights and what people are demanding. It’s a journey and we’re building a glossary of inclusive language. But where to start? How do you know if there’s an issue with inclusive language in your organisation?

When I’m consulting, or speaking to employers about inclusive language and DEI, I start by applying 3 acid tests.

  1. Are you being inclusive with your use of pronouns within the organisation and communications? Do you, for example, refer to your Chairman, or Chair?
  2. Does your organisation’s policies and templates use gender neutral language? When you advertise for a job, is it gender neutral?
  3. Do you have a practical gender expression and transition policy, are you even developing such policies? I’ve found creating policies really help businesses legitimise inclusive practices. A policy document gives you something concrete to direct people to and clearly shows where you’re aiming to be.

Finally, remember that if you’re not genuinely trying to learn, you’ll trip up.

If you approach inclusivity as a box-ticking or ‘inclusive-washing’ exercise, you will trip up. Equality is constantly on the horizon and, as more safeguards and legal frameworks emerge to protect it, engaging with DEI becomes a business imperative.

It is also important from a personal point of view: this is a new world and it’s happening fast. If you have a young family, or have any influence over someone personally or professionally (and we all have influence over someone), you have a responsibility to learn about this and don’t want to get left behind.

Yes, it can be hard to get your head around and there’s a lot to learn, but my advice is to accept that and just get on with it. Enjoy the process.

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What next?

It is the responsibility of everybody in the workplace to create an environment of belonging. You can know the policy and work for a company that’s doing its best, but if everybody has an awareness that they actually have a role to play as well and it evens the playing field and makes for a better workplace.

Leaders, though, are generally under more scrutiny and fearful of getting things wrong. In my years of writing, consulting and speaking on DEI in a business setting, I’ve often found senior male executives to be the most fearful of all when it comes to using inclusive language. They’re frequently paralysed by a terror of saying the wrong thing, or not knowing what to say.

For anyone feeling fearful of the new lexicon of language, my advice is: don’t be afraid, be curious. Feel the fear and enjoy the ride. Ask questions, but be appropriate about how you ask. Use language as a tool to embed inclusivity into your organisation. And keep learning – there’s no end-game here; we’re all on the journey together.

About the Author.

Brendan Courtney - Mix Diversity

Brendan Courtney.

Brendan Courtney is one of Ireland’s best known and well-loved TV hosts. His award-winning TV documentaries have tackled areas such as inclusive housing, ageism and health, and have triggered policy reform within the Irish Government’s healthcare systems, resulting in Brendan’s ministerial appointment to the Department of Health’s executive advisory board.

Brendan is available for conference and keynote speaking and virtual events on topics including Inclusive Language, Allyship and Advocacy and Confirmation Bias.

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