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Choose Your Words Wisely: The Right Words Matter!

True story. My assistant came into my office and asked me to personalize one of my books for a client. I asked the name, and she said, “They would like it signed to Bob.”

I asked, “Bob and who else?”

She gave me a perplexed look. So, I asked again, “Bob and who else?”

She said, “Who else do you mean?”

I said, “You said they. So, who else other than Bob am I signing this to?”

Again, another perplexed look. This went back and forth a couple of times before I realized that when she said they, she was referring just to Bob, who wants to identify as they and not he/him.

As innocently confused as I was, she was getting frustrated with me. So, I asked her how I was supposed to know that they was one person. In an email or on a name badge, it’s not uncommon to see how a person likes to identify. But this was in conversation. I wasn’t sure, and when I asked, it was as if I offended her.

I’m not going to state whether I was right or wrong here, but it made me think. The words we use have new meaning. Politically correct words and labels are important. We don’t want to offend or embarrass ourselves and others. We want to do what’s right. We want to be inclusive with our language.

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This brings me to a new report from Forrester titled Words Matter: Inclusive Experiences Start With Inclusive Language. Practicing inclusive language and design helps to get and keep customers, boost employee engagement, can help avoid embarrassing PR when the wrong words are used, and more.

In the Forrester report, five Best Practices were shared. Here is a summary of what you need to know.

1.      Write in plain language. I’ll go a step further and suggest you talk in plain language, too. Use words that your audience (employees, customers, shareholders, etc.) can understand the first time they hear or read them. Using easy-to-understand words can actually increase customer satisfaction.

2.      Avoid exclusionary words. We may not realize it, but many words we use have roots in oppression and exhibit bias. Forrester cites a client who uses the words “blocked” and “allowed” instead of “blacklist” and “whitelist.” Words such as “normal” and “blind spot” contribute to stigmas regarding disabilities or mental illness. There may be no intent to embarrass or belittle someone with those words, but we are in an era when the right words matter.

3.      If you truly need demographic data, explain why. All my life I was taught to never ask a woman her age. But that’s exactly what this means. If you’re going to ask about age, gender, ethnicity or any other demographic information in a survey or on a form, explain why. And, if you don’t need it, don’t ask for it.

4.      Provide inclusive answer choices. Don’t force customers to make “unwanted decisions” when taking surveys or filling out paperwork. For instance, on a survey don’t ask respondents to choose male or female. Allow options that are more inclusive. This goes for race, religion and any other demographic. And, similar to Best Practice No. 3, if you’re going to ask for it, explain why.

5.      Follow content accessibility best practices. Inclusive language helps customers and employees with disabilities. Forrester suggests following the practices described in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). There is a lot that goes into making a website truly accessible. You can start by writing in plain language, creating video content with accurate captions, using alternative text on images so screen reader software can convert it to audible speech, and more.

If nothing else, this report and the five Best Practices will make you think. That alone is a good start. You’ll start to notice when people use words that can be offensive. Just the other day I noticed in a description of a home that the real estate company referred to what we’ve known as a master bedroom as the primary bedroom. Going back to my original example with my assistant, it is now acceptable in writing to use the word they instead of he or she. It’s not about how someone wants to be identified but is instead genericizing the pronouns to keep from offending.

We’re seeing more and more words being changed. They are explained as politically incorrect. Companies, brand-name products, and sports teams at all levels, from professional to high school, are changing their names to be more politically correct.

It will take a long time before certain words and expressions disappear from our vocabularies. And nobody is perfect. As the transition takes place, we’re bound to make mistakes. Just try. Apologize when you make a mistake. Learn from it. Accept it and embrace it.

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