Why inclusive language is bullshit.

These days, most of my clients have (or are in the process of creating) an inclusive language guide.

It might be a standalone thing, or it might form part of their wider verbal identity work. Either way, great. I’m on board.

Because while some companies clearly embark on this kind of endeavour purely as a box-ticking exercise, I’m fortunate enough to generally work with people who aren’t twats. So they’re most commonly motivated by a) the recognition that language can have enormous power to make people feel things and, on balance, it would be nicer if those things were good rather than bad; and b) the understanding that people relating to and feeling included by the language used to sell them something is a pretty vital factor in whether or not they buy it.

Smart ideas. So far, so good.

But here’s where it all goes tits up.

For most brands, an inclusive language guide is little more than a copy-and-paste job, where all the latest terminology from groups like Stonewall and Mencap and Runnymede and the UN has been mindlessly swiped, shovelled together, and held up as the only sure-fire route to MAKING SURE WE ALWAYS SAY THE RIGHT THING.

Because they’ve bought into the idea that there’s a 'right' set of language. One right way to speak. One right load of words that are wonderfully, magically, completely inclusive of everyone – and using any other language is offensive and discriminatory and wrong.

But that’s bullshit. It’s a myth.

That's just not how language works.

What’s right (i.e. what makes someone feel valued and included) will be different for different people at different times and in different contexts. And not only that, but words which some people will find affirming and relatable will at the same time leave others feeling confused, put down, or shut out. Words very rarely either include or exclude – most do both at the same time.

Two people of the same race might have very different opinions about how that race is referred to.

Some people who have Aspergers love and embrace the moniker ‘aspies’, while others absolutely hate it.

Offering a ‘chestfeeding area’ in a public space better includes trans men or non-binary people who might be using their bodies to feed a baby, but could leave cis women feeling confused and uncomfortable.

I’ve known people who can’t hear feel very strongly about being known as ‘Deaf’ rather than ‘deaf’, while others don’t mind or prefer ‘hearing impaired’.

And there are definitely some who consider the label ‘working class’ to be a badge of honour, and find the government-recommended phrase ‘people from a lower socioeconomic background’ to be both pretentious and patronising.

It’s also not only about the preferences of those being spoken to – but the status of those doing the speaking. Are you part of the same group, speaking to people with a shared identity, or are you on the outside? That can have a huge impact on how language is received.

The reality is that there's no silver bullet. The term 'inclusive language' isn't (or shouldn't be) referring to one set list of words. What it sounds like to be inclusive will change depending on the context and, just the same as any other aspect of your brand’s language or tone of voice, you have to take the time to find what works in yours.

You have to think hard about who your audience is, about the groups of people that are most important to your business, then find the language that is most accessible and relevant and welcoming to them.

Sure, the copy-and-paste job is a hell of a lot easier. But the help it promises is a mirage.

So don’t join the herds walking towards it. Take the time to carve out your own path.

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