- What inclusive language is and why it is important to brands
- How to go about doing an inclusive language audit
- How to decide what kind of language is in and which is out for your brand
- How to ensure everyone cresting content for your brand uses inclusive language
- Smart ways to think about communicating about language changes to your customers
- Why language is changing so rapidly and what to do about it
- How inclusive language supports belonging
Sonia Thompson: Welcome to Inclusion and Marketing. The show that’s all about giving you the skills and insights you need to attract and retain diverse customers and talent, especially those from underrepresented and underserved communities. I’m your host, Sonia Thompson, a marketer and a person with a lot of differences. Let’s get to it.
You know the saying sticks and stones will break my bones, but words or names is it, I’m not sure. Words or names. Anyway, you get the point. Words will never hurt me. Whichever one it is, words or names, it’s not true. That saying, that phrase that we tell kids are not true. Words matter. Words have the power to uplift. Words have the power to tear down. Words have the power to include. Words have the power to exclude. Think about it. I’m sure at some point in your life you have had somebody say something to you that hurts your feelings. There’s been some point when the words that somebody used caused you harm or put you off in some kind of way. Words matter. In our quest to make more people feel like they belong with us, we have to make sure we use words that make people feel at home with us rather than ones that cause harm and push them away, and that goes for words, in all formats, in conversation, in written text, in video, all of it.
To help us with this all important topic of inclusive language and copy, I brought in an expert, Nailah King, founder of The Content Witches. So let’s get to it. Here’s Nailah.
Hey Nailah, thank you so much for joining me today. How are you?
Nailah King: I’m good. How are you?
Sonia: I’m doing well. All right. I’m really excited about this topic. So let’s go ahead and dig in. But before we get there, real quick, tell the people who are you and what do you do.
Nailah: So I’m Nailah and I’m the founder and storyteller at The Content Witches, which is a copywriting, copy mentoring agency that I started and I help conscious leaders create a conscientious writing practice so they can craft stories of belonging within their communities.
Sonia: Stories of belonging. I knew you were meant to be here, right? We were all about the belonging here. So, all right. Well, let’s dig in about how do you actually create content in your [inaudible 00:02:29] writing that makes people feel like they belong? What is inclusive copy and language and what’s the connection to belonging?
Nailah: So basically my definition is that inclusive language/copy is language that doesn’t use words or phrases that express discriminatory or stereotypical views or ideas of others and it just asks us to be more thoughtful and reflective with the words and expressions we use every day. Yeah. It’s interesting. As I’ve started to get more into this, I’ve been finding that there are words that I say on a regular basis that I’m trying to work out of my vocabulary because I want to sort of take into account being more inclusive. I think one of them is using “guys”. Hey guys, how are you? Especially if I’m talking to group of women or a mixed company. Right? So I know that’s one of the things I don’t know how most people feel about that, but that’s something that I’m actually been working towards, but it does, it requires a lot of thought and sort of reprogramming to get yourself out of habit of just saying certain words.
For sure and I think that’s one in particular that’s been reinforced in pop culture or books, really any type of media and what I always tend to say is, people generally learn these things their whole life. They learn this language. I’m 30 plus so I’ve been speaking a particular way for a very long time and while I am trying to scrub a lot of language, for me, the one that always trips me up, especially as someone who’s a second language learner now because I’m trying to learn Spanish, idioms are too tricky. So I have just started to really stay away from those because if you really start digging into their meanings and their etymologies, some of them are grim and deeply problematic, but they’ve been so divorced from their original meaning that the meaning behind it is more at the forefront than the original origin of the phrase. So that’s kind of where I’ve been, finding a quicker way to kind of scrub some more problematic phrases just to kind of ditch idioms pretty much entirely.
Sonia: I get it. Now, just for those people who are not well versed in grammar, what is an idiom?
Nailah: An idiom is just sort of a common saying. I’m trying to find a neutral one. Maybe early bird gets the worm is probably maybe one that’s a bit safer. Disclaimer, I haven’t Googled this so who knows, but that’s not one of the ones that’s on the list of ones where I was like, this is questionable. So don’t quote me, but any real sort of common saying that you probably heard in nursery school or typically rhyme and they usually just nod to a wider kind of more metaphorical meaning basically.
Sonia: Got it. I understand. I understand. But yeah, I think what you’re saying around, there are some that are just problematic and some things that are problematic because they have a different meeting that we’re unaware of, but if we were to learn the meeting, we would be like, oh my gosh, that’s not what I mean at all. So I think it’s just a matter of inclusive language is really about being intentional about knowing what it is that you’re saying and being careful with your words, because it’s not always about your intention with the meaning, what you mean. If there’s certain words or phrases that trigger other people, that’s not a good thing, right?
Nailah: Yeah, for sure.
Sonia: Are there specific types of language that you’ve noticed, and as you’ve been doing this work, that does the most harm and often makes people feel excluded or uncomfortable?
Nailah: Yeah. I mean, I’ll start by saying, obviously any language that’s discriminatory, ableist, promotes hate, et cetera shouldn’t be used. In terms of more kind of, I don’t want to say neutral, but instances where it’s more problematic than hateful is using binaristic language. I see that come up a lot and all I mean by binaristic language is just kind of categorizing people as one or the other, even though we know that the human experience is very layered and we live at multitudes, but a quick example, I think this was a trend on TikTok. I’m not on TikTok, but using feminine energy versus masculine energy or kind of codifying that energy piece, typically it’s not really that relevant to categorize your audience in that way. Also, it doesn’t leave enough space for folks to identify with or resonate with if there’s just two sort of types of people or two types of energy or whatever, I think that can be something that people find to be kind of hurtful and exclusionary.
Sonia: Got it. Got it. Okay. How would you know if your content isn’t inclusive or if it needs an update or a refresh? As you’re starting to think about, okay yes, I want to make sure that my language is inclusive, how do you know if you’ve had some things that are kind of borderline or not where they need to be?
Nailah: Well, a good start, as I mentioned earlier, is using a tool. I think it’s like etymology.com. If you’re looking up, especially as it pertains to idioms and things, that’s probably a good place to start, but honestly, and I’ve said this in my blog as well and in the mini course, just going through your old content, if there’s anything in there that you’re like, that doesn’t really resonate with me anymore or I don’t maybe know the origin of this word, I’m no longer comfortable saying guys or whatever of that nature, I think that’s a good place to start, but there was a lot of resources, very accessible DEI education, particularly as a result of June 2020. So I encourage folks to just kind of go find it, just because I want to honor the labor of the people who did create all of those inclusive language, like listicles, all of that information. There’s a whole host of really great resources out there.
I think it’s just the awareness that a lot of this language exists with the expressed purpose of hurting people and degrading others and I think a Google search and digging into the meanings of a lot of these phrases and etymologies, that’s going to open your eyes to kind of what unfortunately exists as the language was created, unfortunately. Especially if you think about colonialism and language diffusing and changing over the globe and globalization now, all of these different factors.
So I think just being more intentional about the words that you’re using is a great place to start, but I always recommend just digging, going back into your content and just rereading, especially if you have a lot of content. If you’ve been blogging for 10 years, you probably have a whole host of archives and libraries and just reading it and seeing if the content or the words or the tone of voice or the phrases, whatever content that’s in there, does it still resonate with you, why or why not? You can certainly scrub the more problematic language from that as well, but just seeing if it still feels welcoming and still represents your brand, that’s usually where I tend to start.
Sonia: Right. I think that’s good. I can put a link to a lot of those resources that you mentioned in the show notes. I think it is also worth noting that the language that you decide to use or decide to exclude from your content and your communications can be very individual and very industries specific.
So I came across an article, I think it was last year, from mindbodygreen, the site, the media company, they have a lot of health and wellness content, but one of the things that they said was, “We’re going to remove the word infertility from all of our communications,” because they realized, one, this isn’t quite correct, but two, they were identifying that even just using that word was causing harm to people. So that may not be a word that might appear on a list of inclusive language, but knowing their audience, they realize that, hey, this is something that we’re unnecessarily causing harm to people. We can change this word or this terminology that we’re using to be more correct, but also that doesn’t trigger people.
So I think each individual brand, company should think about not only what are the things that you are doing and saying that you want to make sure that you’re steering clear from and that might be a good starting point, but also what are the things that are most applicable and most relevant to the specific people that you’re serving and that’s always a good starting point as well.
Nailah: Yeah, for sure. So I always say does it align with you today and you could extend that to the wider industry, like do we use these terms in the industry? Maybe we don’t use these terms anymore. That’s another kind of wider… Obviously, that’s industry specific and I know that there’s some sort of more sweeping lists than others. When I did an audit for a client, they were in the sort of parentage world. So making a lot of swaps to parenting versus mothering and fathering and more neutral recommendations from people who are inclusive language thinkers, specific to that industry, that’s the information that I consulted to support them because I am certainly not a parent yet.
So I wanted to kind of see what the narrative and what the existing conversations were out there. But yeah, I agree. I think you would also have to kind of dump it into two buckets, the kind of known sort of no nos of these conversations and then it’s very likely that if you’re in mattresses like you mentioned, or I don’t know, maybe in firefighting or some other industry, or maybe other parts of tech or medical, that would be a place to kind of talk with your community members and see what aligns with them and what resonates with them and what’s changing, and really just having conversations with people too, because I learn things all the time in sort of niches that I’m not necessarily a part of because those conversations are ongoing all the time because language is evolving the time.
Sonia: Absolutely. It’s interesting going back to I think where we started, there are some things and some phrases and terminology and uses of them that have become so ingrained in culture, but now as you look at it today and we’re like, wait a minute. I passed by, I think a little while ago, a sign that said men at work, like the caution sign where you have construction workers and I’m like, come on, there’s only men working? There’s not any women in there working? But I know where that used to come from. Maybe traditionally there were only men in that space, but I think as culture evolves, society evolves, we definitely have to start looking at things with a more critical eye and see, and when we do, I’m sure we’ll come up with a lot of things that we can just start changing that doesn’t cause harm in any way.
Nailah: Yeah, and speaking of second language learning, like adding E as sort of a gender neutral in Spanish is something that I’ve been reading a lot about and it’s referenced in a Spanish language TV show, where the character is constantly switching to the sort of E form rather than the gendered form. So I think the internet is also expediting these conversations, because when June 2020 happened, I was able to send some Spanish speaking friends some new terms that needed to be translated that didn’t exist because Spanish language folks were trying to engage with these conversations, but some of these terms were just created so there wasn’t a translation yet.
Nailah: So I think part of it is maybe some resistance, but I think the other part of it that we’re maybe talking about as much is, I don’t know that we can catch up as fast as-
Sonia: Got it.
Nailah: … internet is moving. Even in updating my own resources, I had to change stuff that six months ago I felt pretty confident about including and then after that I’m like, well actually, reading this article, reading this, being part of this conversation, I’m not sure that’s the best term for that, which I think is ultimately good. But I think you’re talking about a more traditional workforce and can they catch up with those conversations? I think that’s always going to be a challenge even for me as a writer to make sure that I’m up to date, which is why I always suggest at a minimum that you do kind of an annual audit to see if you’re still good with the language, just to make sure that you’re keeping up.
Sonia: Absolutely. So along those lines, there are a number of brands who outsource their writing. They have a content team, they have copywriters, they have content creators. Is this something that copywriters and content creators are starting to do on their own as part of a norm or best practice or do brands and business leaders need to give this direction to their writers, just to make sure that it’s clear this is the way we as a brand do things?
Nailah: Yeah. I mean, typically when I worked at corporate, we were having these conversations in the editorial department specifically, maybe four to five years ago. So I definitely think this conversation has been going on for a while and typically from the strictly editorial perspective, that’s where we rely on a document like a style guide that has specific sections for writing within inclusion in mind. I do suspect, as with most corporate spaces, that these efforts were coming from a reactive place i.e. feedback, maybe lawsuits, from community members and clients, but I do think now it’s the norm.
So I think making sure that you have an inclusive language policy overall in terms of your editorial kind of spaces and documentation definitely helps, but also having a brand style guide will help point those folks in the right direction, and depending on what the approval process is, most people working with independent copywriters or copywriting agencies, there’s typically a revision process so brands have the opportunity to review what’s written to make sure that it meets the style guide and wouldn’t necessarily cause any additional red flags, but maybe you would also want to work with somebody like me who would kind of review that and that specific skillset and that specific content.
Nailah: That’s kind of where I see it. I think it’s a norm, but I think how to enforce it is still people are running up against that challenge so that’s where having a style guide, especially if you’re working with external third party folks and a policy in general, and it could just be, you might have to make that an enforceable document to say something along the lines of, as part of this contract, if you’re writing with us, you abide by our inclusive language policy. So if something problematic appears on a copy doc, we’re going to have an issue.
Sonia: Right. I think that’s-
Nailah: Or they need to at least have a discussion.
Sonia: That should be a norm or an expectation. When I worked in corporate, I worked in brand marketing and one of the things that I was responsible for, for our brand, and we had a lot of materials going through, was copy review from a marketing standpoint. So we had our brand guidelines, our style guide, and as much time as we spent making sure that we used the right fonts and colors and tone and photography, the language that you’re using is just as important. So if you don’t make it clear and universal this is how our brand shows up in the world, then it’s going to be difficult to make sure that you have that from a consistent basis and this isn’t just applicable for large brands, this is for smaller brands as well. It doesn’t really matter what size you are, having this sort of defined in a guideline is very beneficial and just helpful at any point, especially the moment you start to bring other people on your team to write anything for you.
Nailah: Yeah. It’s a pretty critical piece of content governance. I’m always kind of surprised in instances where someone… I mainly work with solopreneurs or people with teams with three team members or less when they don’t have… When a bunch of people are touching the content and no such document exists, that’s challenging.
Nailah: That’s challenging to enforce. So I definitely recommend.
Nailah: It doesn’t necessarily have to be an overly formal document, but I do think something has to be in place.
Sonia: Right. Yeah. Should brands, as they’re going through, when they’re doing their audits on their language, should they be announcing that, hey, this is what we used to do and now we’re changing this going forward or is it just really a personal decision, like my buddy [inaudible 00:19:04] decided we’re not going to use this term anymore and here’s why? I’ve seen a couple of other brands like, we’re removing these words because it’s ableist and then moving forward. Is that something that is a best practice?
Nailah: Yeah. I think being transparent around language changes is always a good idea. It certainly makes these efforts intentional and it is an important piece of accountability. That said, what I’ve seen done that works really well is simply including somewhere on the website, like an ethics page or somewhere similar, that folks can expect, however frequently, an inclusive language review, which may result in some updates to ensure that the content in copy is inclusive and affirming rather than risking that kind of Scooby-Doo gotcha moment. It not only shows that you’re active in your conscientious writing and messaging practice, but you aren’t coming from a reactive place and these efforts are a necessary already baked in part of your content governance. Like we were speaking about before, maybe there’s, hard pressed to find an example, but there’s a term within the next six months that we decide collectively as a community, now we’re not going to use that anymore.
A year ago, you would not have known that, but now that it’s kind of part of the cultural zeitgeist and that we’ve collectively decided this as a community, then you can remove it without necessarily having to say or have that conversation that’s like, oh, it’s there. I’m going to remove it. They know that you’re moving with intention to remove anything as part of your practice. So I think that’s something to share. I don’t think you necessarily have to go into the granular on this page, on that page, on this page, but to simply say that you’re as part of your values, you want to make sure that the language is always up to date and affirming and how you do that is you schedule an annual review that said, if you’re contacted about something or you just decide that you’re going to change stuff, you might make those updates sooner. That’s typically what I see works really well.
Sonia: Yeah. Dr. Seuss did this last year. I know there are a lot of people who are a bit of an uproar because they decided to remove a few books from circulation, but why did they do that? They did an annual review of all their content to make sure that is this content still okay, is it still in keeping with our values as a brand, and they found that some weren’t and they removed them. I think that’s just part of a good, healthy practice to maintain, because like you said, things evolve and they evolve quickly. So if you have regular check-ins, it just makes it part of something that you’re doing so that you can update things and keep them current. It’s just a part of the brand process.
Nailah: Yeah, and I think that it also just means it’s something that’s already part of your practice, as opposed to being caught, if you will. I think it just fosters more trust in your community. Your community can know that you’re passionate about this and you’re being accountable and realistic because you’re constantly doing this anyway and I think it does also leave room for people to change their mind. I think sometimes that’s why people are a bit hesitant about doing a policy, is because they feel as though it has to be a rigid document that you never change and that you’ll have to stand by for the rest of time, where that’s not realistic.
Nailah: Language is changing all the time and particularly the internet and further to that social media is really making it a lot, that change over even faster.
Nailah: I think if you’re a small team, it would be harder to keep up with and that’s why it’s probably more realistic to say trolling every month, every week is probably not realistic for us. We have a scheduled time for this where we can dedicate the time to read the resources and educate ourselves and work with experts if we need to, to make sustainable, impactful changes.
Sonia: Right. Okay. So I know the whole premise of inclusive language is to really not cause harm to certain people. Now, I think that there are times where some people might be offended by certain language uses and others might not and they’ll feel like it’s no big deal. So I imagine that there could be an instance where someone will come to a brand and say, “Hey, you shouldn’t use this word. This isn’t a good thing.” How does the brand decide? Because sometimes they might not agree on usage of terminology. You mentioned before in Spanish language and this exists in French and other languages, where there are some people who are trying to make it more gender neutral, like using the E for instance, in Spanish versus the masculine or feminine versions.
So there are some brands that are starting to change that as recommendation and there are other people who don’t agree with it, right? It’s fluid, but that’s just one example of it, but there might be other terms or phrases that pop up that people might say raise a red flag. “Hey, this doesn’t sit well with me.” How does a brand decide what language is going to be in for them and what language is going to be out from a brand perspective, because I imagine that there might be some that some people agree with and others don’t?
Nailah: Yeah. I think for me, again, I’ll reiterate, obviously discriminatory language, big no, but in terms of a brand’s own individual language, I think that’s actually a discussion about style, tone, those voice guidelines and then having those things come together to foster a culture of belonging, right? Like what words, phrases or tone of voice reinforce the culture being created and which undermine it?
Nailah: An example to consider is using slang and language from communities that your organization does not represent, AKA appropriative language.
Nailah: It’s a pretty classic case of one group of people is not okay with this language being used, other people believe it to be part of the wider cultural zeitgeist, what’s the big deal? But I would say, does using that language, that appropriative language, add to the culture of belonging, or does it detract? When deciding what brand language to use, really explore what the tone of voice is trying to convey and center words, language, and messaging that actually supports it. I think you’ll find that when you stay in kind of that lane, your messaging will resonate more with folks versus picking out individual phrases just because they sound cool or someone’s come up with tone guidelines that don’t speak to that criteria of how does it enforce our culture. Another example would be anytime a brand wants to be cool, they start using AAVE.
Sonia: Yeah. Yeah. Whenever brands are using like “hey sis”, and it’s not really for me, whenever I see a brand using that terminology, hey sis, and it’s not a Black person. I always kind of look at it like it doesn’t feel right. I give a side eye. I’m like, what are you doing? This doesn’t feel right, natural or authentic, please stop. But I know different people feel differently about that, but I found that problematic. Yeah.
Nailah: I think that could potentially be a better way to navigate it is simply to think about, is this actually creating the culture we want because we want to include the widest group of people and if one community is telling us, no, it’s not on, then is that speaking to that culture of belonging that you’re trying to foster, potentially not.
Sonia: Right. Right. You don’t have to use specific language in that tone to make them feel like they belong, actually you’re doing the opposite. Right? So could you swap something else out and still have the same feeling and not make people feel like this isn’t cool. So, yeah.
Sonia: I think it’s a good discussion.
Nailah: Yeah, and I think really digging into that, like what does cool mean? Because if your go to is someone else’s culture and cherry picking from someone else’s culture, then maybe what you’re not going for is actually not cool. You’re going for something coded and problematic because coolness is not necessarily specifically about a demographic, right?
Nailah: So I think really digging into what you’re trying to say and being more specific about who your community is and how you’re trying to communicate with them and what conversations you’re trying to have. I think there’s been too long of people using random adjectives to describe their tone of voice versus the actual impact of the community seeing that language and messaging in real life, on a billboard or on social media, et cetera.
Nailah: I think that’s part of it as well.
Sonia: This has been such a cool… There’s so many more things to dig into, but we got to wrap it up. Any parting words of wisdom for brands who want to use inclusive language to make more of the people that they serve feel like they belong with them?
Nailah: I think just really, I talk about it a lot as your community promise. What have you promised to your audience and your community and what conversations are you trying to have with them? What kind of relationship are you trying to foster with them? I think any language that you should support that community promise and I think that’s the biggest takeaway, for sure.
Sonia: Absolutely. Where can people find you if they want to learn more about you? I know you said you’ve got a free course on inclusive language and you just got other great resources, so where can they find you?
Nailah: So they can find me on the website, www.thecontentwitches.ca. There is a free inclusive language mini course. It’s an email course, five kind of really quick lessons. Also, includes a module on appropriative language, if you’re interested in that. I’m on Instagram, @thecontentwitches, but also my personal account, @nailah.z.king.
Sonia: Awesome. I will put all that in the show notes. You can access it easily. Thank you so much for this really informative conversation. I think people can take action pretty quickly to kind of get their copy up the snuff.
Nailah: I think so. I try to keep it simple and accessible when I’m talking about these things. I always say I’m just in a conversation with really great peers as well. I think there’s really great discussions happening and I feel so honored to be part of the conversation.
All right. Thank you.
Sonia: Nailah had so many wonderful things to share, and one thing you can do to take action now on making sure you start using inclusive language is to put some time on your calendar for you and/or for you and your team to set some guidelines for inclusive language. Beyond ensuring nothing egregious and hateful is in your content, talk about how you want people to feel and the types of words you want to start eliminating from your brand’s vocabulary. Taking this step will help put you in motion to tackling this important part of building an inclusive brand.
That’s it for today’s show. If you need more help getting started building an inclusive brand, go ahead and grab my inclusive marketing starter kit. You can find it at inclusivemarketing.co/starterkit. If you liked this episode, I would so appreciate it if you would share it with a friend and even rate and review it in your podcast app of choice. It’ll help get the word out so others can get going delivering inclusive experiences and in particular, as it relates to this episode, choosing their words wisely and using them to uplift rather than to cause harm. Until next time. Remember, everyone deserves to have a place where they belong. Let’s use our individual and collective power to make sure more people feel like they do. Somebody’s waiting on you. Thanks for listening.