Be less Burger King: three ways to write for everyone
When it comes to inclusive language, it’s not the thought that counts. Even if you have the very best intentions, your words still have the power to offend.
Take Burger King’s well-intended/shameless PR stunt (delete as appropriate) on International Women’s Day, earlier this month. In case you missed it, they tweeted ‘Women belong in the kitchen’, followed by another tweet announcing a scholarship program which aims to address gender disparity in the restaurant industry.
It’s unlikely they intended to cause actual offence, and they did apologise. But the backlash was furious and the damage will be hard to fix.
Some brands are doing better. Dove is removing the word ‘normal’ from 200 products, Kleenex ‘man size’ are now just ‘extra large’, and Mastercard’s True Name program lets trans and non-binary people have their chosen name on their card – rather than the name on their legal documents.
It’s small changes like these that, together, will make a big difference. So here are three ways you can make your words match your intentions.
Spot ableist language and respect people’s wishes
Some people would rather be known as a person with a disability, not labelled as a disabled person. While other people identify with their disability and describe themselves as ‘disabled and proud’. So listen carefully to how people talk about themselves, and respect their choices. If in doubt, always choose the more inclusive option. And watch out for nonsensical, marginalising terms like ‘handicapped parking’. The parking isn’t handicapped, it is actually ‘accessible’.
Make the first right impression
If you’re looking to address gender disparity in your workforce and your boardroom, your job ads are good place to start.
Recent research found that candidates can decide against applying for a job if just 0.6% of the language in the ad is non-inclusive. That’s a whole lot of talent going elsewhere, just because of a careless us of he/she (not they or, better still, you) or phrases like ‘tech ninja’ or ‘tech native’.
And TotalJobs found that certain words are more likely to attract male or female candidates. Words like lead, analyse, competitive and confident make jobs less attractive to women. Which is not good for business, as firms with a good split of genders at C-Suite deliver 34% higher returns to shareholders.
So, even if you don’t work in HR, there’s good reason to speak up.
Steer clear of business speak
This is good advice full stop. Business speak and jargon of any kind feels exclusive: it can make people feel confused and not part of the in-the-know crowd. And if you don’t know the origins of a phrase, you risk unwittingly offending people.
Ever said you’re holding down the fort? Someone’s been sold down the river? Both idioms to avoid. Along with widely accepted terms like ‘master’ and ‘slave’ lists, or ‘grandfather clauses’. They’ve all got dubious origins, and they could all be rephrased in ways that won’t offend anyone.
Of course, no one gets it right every time. We’re all learning. But taking a moment to think about the words you use might make a big difference to someone’s day, and even your bottom line.
What phrases have you noticed or would like to see banned?
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