Language Matters

One way we can help make companies, teams, and projects more inclusive is through our everyday language.

A version of this was originally written for the blog of the company I worked for at the time. While I believe the general content is useful and helpful, and it felt true to my experience of the company at the time I authored it, I ended up leaving that company due to persistent disregard for inclusion and a refual to acknowledge or challenge harmful behavior and practices at the leadership level.

While there has been plenty of research and discussion on the importance of diversity in the technology industry, inclusion is also critically important. One way we can help make companies, teams, and projects more inclusive is through our everyday language. Language is incredibly powerful and shapes our experiences and interactions with the world.

I’ve always tried to be mindful of the language I use, but it’s not always easy. I’m used to saying “Hey, guys!” to a group of folks, and “Wow, that sounds crazy!” to friends telling me about their wild adventures, because that’s what I’ve said my entire life. The reality is that “guys” isn’t gender neutral and excludes women and folks who do not fall into a binary gender, and “crazy” stigmatizes and hurts those who might have experience with a mental illness. They’re problematic words that unintentionally end up excluding people. When people feel excluded — or even harmed — by the language used by the people around them, it’s difficult for marginalized people to be their best selves and impacts the psychological safety of the team and organization.

It’s difficult to break language patterns you’re used to. But language really matters, and it’s important that we acknowledge that and make an effort to change.

After the violence that happened to people protesting a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville last summer, I came across a Tweet by Security Nerdette (@secnerdette) that proposed the terms “safelist” and “blocklist” as an alternative to using the terms “whitelist” and “blacklist” in an attempt to remove racism from our everyday vocabulary in tech. While the origin of whitelist/blacklist is not itself racist, the impact of reinforcing the negative stereotype of “black equals bad” is important for the tech community to challenge. Since I work in tech, I immediately began thinking about how I could have this important conversation with more people in my industry — starting with the people I work with every day.

Last year at the annual company company retreat, I facilitated a session around this idea called Language Matters: Challenging Bigotry in Everyday Vocabulary. The breakout room for the discussion was packed, and in the mere 20 minutes we had to talk about this topic, the #watch-your-language Slack channel was born — a space where we could ask questions and support each other as we try to change the language we use to be more inclusive.

We agreed on some important ground rules for this experiment. First, this project was opt-in. While we certainly could challenge anyone on obviously problematic language, we didn’t want to police people who weren’t interested in shifting their vocabulary beyond the basics. We wanted to create an inclusive community where people could wrestle with questions about specific words and phrases together.

The Slack channel also needed to be a safe space where we could admit to messing up and ask questions without judgment. This was really important in that initial conversation, because using problematic language (sexist, racist, ableist, or otherwise) is something we’ve all done at some point, even when we try really hard not to. Sometimes, we don’t even realize the words we’re using are problematic. This discussion forum was designed to encourage questions and get help from other folks.

Finally, folks needed to be kind in correcting people and assuming the best. We work with amazing, thoughtful people, and we knew it was important to extend the benefit of the doubt to their intentions.

Of course, we’re not always perfect at following these ground rules — it can be especially difficult when triggering things come up for some folks, myself included — but we all try our hardest. All we really ask of anyone in undertaking this project is to try their hardest to be mindful, thoughtful, humble, curious, and kind.

There is some carryover outside of #watch-your-language to the rest of the company as well. People have learned not only that inclusive language is important, but that they can ask for it. In particular, many folks have been asking others to not use “guys” to refer to a mixed-gender group of people, as well as encouraging folks to use more gender inclusive language in general (for example, peoplehours instead of manhours).

It’s been amazing to watch participation grow in #watch-your-language since its inception at the retreat. We’ve had discussions about different phrases and words — not only their history, but also their impact. We’ve shared alternatives we can use, and practiced how we can point out when something is problematic or hurtful. Most importantly, we’ve been learning how we can respond when we’re called out for our own language. We’re all growing and discovering new things, and working to be better allies and more thoughtful people.

I think the thing that impresses me the most is that I’m fortunate enough to work with a group of amazing people who would be willing to embark on such a project. That kindness and mindfulness was certainly something I hoped for in joining the company, but I never could have imagined even a tech company in San Francisco being open to these conversations and engaging in this kind of dialogue.

Similar to technology, language is constantly evolving. I’m excited to see that my fellow colleagues are willing to evolve as well, adapting and exploring how we can be more inclusive.