October 26, 2021

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Guide to using inclusive language for your brand and business

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Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have been hot topics these last few years. While they’re certainly not new subject areas, companies and organizations are paying closer attention to their DEI efforts both internally and externally.

Using inclusive language is more than making your social media posts more accessible. It also applies to your internal communications, job post descriptions, marketing emails and general customer interactions. Inclusive language should be etched throughout your communications as an organization in the same way DEI should be foundational to how you’re operating as a business.

Employing an inclusive language lens to your writing means looking at how your words might impact others of various identities, especially when you don’t carry the same identities.

What is inclusive language and why is it important?

“Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities,” writes the Linguistic Society of America.

The use of words that are not inclusive is a byproduct of common use in society and not because of intention. However, the impact is still the same. Inclusive language works to avoid stereotypes and makes the receiver feel like they’re part of the target audience.

From the definition alone, it’s clear that writing and speaking inclusively is something that your company should value. Why is it important for inclusive language to be central to your brand voice?

To borrow some lines from Sprout’s style guide, “The goal of every piece of Sprout communication is to educate, empower, support and inspire trust. Which means using language that makes all people feel seen, safe and included.”

And don’t you want that feeling for your employees and your customers?

Phrases to avoid in brand communication

There are several categories that come up often for inclusive language. This is not an exhaustive list and it’s highly encouraged to conduct your own research to determine what works best for your company or brand.

1. Age

Ageism is the discrimination of a person based on age, whether young or old, and it can sometimes sneak into everyday conversation. If you’ve ever hear someone refer to a certain behavior as “childish” or describe an item as “old lady,” that’s ageism. In tech, the “mom test” brings in both age and gender, implying that someone older than a certain age wouldn’t be able to figure out the tech item.

When possible, use specific terms to refer to a person’s age, if necessary. Take a page out of the American Medical Association’s Manual of Style when referring to age: 

  • Infants are aged 1 month to 1 year
  • Children are aged 1 to 12 years
  • Adolescents and teenagers are aged 13 to 17
  • Adults are 18 years and older, but persons aged 18 to 24 may also be references as young adults
  • Older adults can be referred to as just that: older persons, older people, people 65 years and older

Check out the AARP for additional phrases to avoid and replace with.

2. Class & socioeconomic status

You might notice terms that denote class remove a person from the subject and dehumanizes them. In marketing, cultural references that imply a shared childhood experience should generally be avoided.

Some alternative phrases include:

  • A person experiencing homelessness
  • People without homes
  • Economically disadvantaged

3. Disabilities

Disabilities come in all forms: physical, mental, developmental and intellectual. Some are visible while others are not. For example, some who have chronic diseases and conditions don’t exhibit outward physical symptoms.

Phrases to avoid include: handicap, lame, dumb, bipolar (when not discussing the mental health diagnosis), “I had a PTSD moment,” “falling on deaf ears” and normal.

When talking about a person, it’s best to use phrasing like “someone diagnosed with.” For communities with deaf/hard of hearing and autistic people, they tend to prefer language that puts the descriptor first. In any situation where you need to refer to someone with a disability, it’s always best to ask their preferences.

Preferred examples may include:

  • Persons with a disability
  • Persons with diabetes
  • Physically disabled
  • Deaf persons or deaf community
  • Autistic persons

4. Gender

Two of the most apparent uses of gender in communications include the use of assumed pronouns and phrases when addressing an audience. “Hey guys” is very commonly used, as well as “Hello ladies” or “yes, sir.” Or positions with “man” in the title such as “postman,” “policeman” and “chairman.”

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Alternative phrases include:

  • Hey folks
  • Hello everyone
  • “they” instead of “he” or “she”
  • “chairperson” or “chair”
  • “server” instead of “waiter” or “waitress”

5. Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation words should be used as adjective rather than nouns to avoid dehumanizing individuals. Other words like “sexual preference” or “lifestyle” imply that sexual orientation is a choice, which is not the case.

Example phrases include:

  • LGBTQIA+ community
  • Marriage and not “same-sex marriage” or “gay marriage”
  • Queer person

6. Power-based interpersonal violence

Power-based interpersonal violence comes up most in contexts of abuse, harassment and human trafficking. When examining terms like “victim” or “accused of,” you notice that it de-centers the person who caused the harm.

Replace with:

  • A person who experienced
  • Someone who reported
  • They assaulted this person

7. Race & ethnicity

Race and ethnicity biased phrasing is easier to identify mainly because it’s been the subject of news more often. Because there are common phrases with historical roots in racism (e.g., “the peanut gallery”), it’s best to conduct thorough research in this area.

Use phrases like:

  • BIPOC
  • Marginalized person
  • Indigenous person
  • Person of color

8. Religion

While a significant percentage of the US population are Christian, there are many in the US and globally who are not. Assuming people practice or have a specific faith sneaks into phrasing like “Merry Christmas” or going to “church.”

Replace with phrases like:

  • Happy holidays or seasons greetings
  • Place of worship rather than “church”

9. Size

Body shaming and size discrimination is rampant in multiple industries from medical to fashion to food. Referencing someone’s size directly or indirectly is offensive in any situation.

Unless you’re a company that is working directly in this area, size language should not come up. Plus-size is the more common phrase to replace size-ist words. Many are also reclaiming “fat,” but like other descriptors, should be first checked with the person on their preference.

What companies need to do to avoid implicit bias

There are several actions that companies can take to avoid implicit bias in their communications that require thought and research, as well as continual review. Language is constantly changing and it’s important for brands and people to keep up with it.

Implicit bias is demonstrated when you unconsciously carry perceptions and ideas about various groups of people. Stereotypes reinforce implicit bias. These can have negative effects if we aren’t aware of it and aren’t intentional in our actions. It takes an active process to ensure you’re not being influenced by implicit bias.

For example, when you picture a medical doctor, you might first think of a white man in a lab coat. That’s implicit bias in action and can be reinforced by things like stock photos and marketing imagery. When in reality, medical doctors aren’t limited to one gender or race, so why should your company images be like that?

1. Add inclusive language guidelines to the company’s style guide

First and foremost, create a company style guide. Even if you have one already, then add a separate section or incorporate inclusive language into your general guidelines.

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In Sprout’s own style guide, there is a specific section dedicated to inclusive language guidelines. This both introduces the topic of inclusive language and highlights a brand value. 

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In Mailchimp’s often-referenced style guide, inclusive language is incorporated throughout into its scenario-based categories. The “Writing About People” section discusses descriptors like race and age while the “Writing for Translation” section talks about prioritizing clear copy.

2. Use plain language and avoid jargon

Have you ever asked a question at a fancy restaurant and been given one of those incredulous “I can’t believe you don’t know this” looks? No one likes to feel this way, so why use phrases and words that alienate your readers?

Using plain language means avoiding industry and company jargon, acronyms and the like. Of course, there are exceptions to this. Sometimes acronyms are useful and it’s best to introduce the phrase with the accompanying acronym when you first mention it. But multiple acronyms can make the reader feel like they’re deciphering a code.

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Using a tool like Hemingway helps you identify potentially challenging sentences.

However, if you’re writing a technical industry white paper, using jargon is acceptable. Be sure to document the language chances for each use case in your style guide.

3. Check that company designs & images are diverse

Whether you hire models for your advertising campaign shoots or you find stock images to use in social media posts, the idea is the same. Vary the visual identities you use. Stock photos don’t have to be boring or have the same white faces being used over and over again. Check out companies like TONL who intentionally curate culturally diverse stock photos.

A company that puts this idea into action is the lingerie company SavageX. Models of all sizes, colors and disabilities are represented in every aspect of SavageX’s advertising. Their commitment carries through in their website and social media posts.

4. Check all company communications

When working on inclusive language, you’ll need to review all of your company communications. This includes internal and external communication efforts, including your website, email communications, social posts and even recruiting efforts.

Looking at all your content and communications can seem daunting, which is why it’s important to build connections with diverse community members and leverage resource groups to help guide your communication messages.

Job postings are one of the first ways prospects learn about your company. Using gendered language or phrases in a job description can discourage certain people from applying.

For example, notice how Sprout Social uses second-person point of view to refer to candidates in a job posting.

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And if you’re referring to a customer to a coworker, you might unintentionally assume their pronoun based on their name.

Get started on inclusive language

Inclusive language takes time and effort and is not a one-and-done deal. When you’re incorporating it into social media posts, using an approval process like Sprout offers in our publishing feature gives you more eyes on copy before hitting send.

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You might not get the inclusive language right every time but proactively doing the work will help you avoid blunders that might turn viral. More importantly, though, is that you’re taking actions to limit harm to others, which is something we should all strive for.

There are many style guide examples out there as well as resources that focus on inclusive language. Paying attention to words and what you say as part of your brand voice is another way to deliver brand authenticity.

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