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Force for Good Work Culture

Expanding the Conversation through Office of the CTO’s Inclusive-Language Efforts

Have you ever felt excluded when your coworkers are chatting? Have others assumed things about you based on how you look or where you’re from?

On average, we speak approximately 16,000 words per day. Typically, our word choices are made quickly and without much thought — and unfortunately, often with lots of bias. When we don’t think much about what we say, we end up using language that’s loaded with stereotypes, assumptions, or terms that only focus on one part of who they are. This type of language assumes the dominant culture is the same for everyone, but it actually alienates people from marginalized groups and erodes trust on a team.

Thankfully, there are many things we all can do to make our language more inclusive. By focusing on how we can shift our word choices to include a wider variety of people, as well as to eliminate assumptions and stereotypes when speaking with those different than us, we can make everyone feel welcomed, respected, and excited to collaborate with one another. Plus, when we know how to recover from mistakes, structure our meetings to promote effective dialogue, and successfully speak up for others, it’s easy to build inclusive language into our daily lives.

OCTO’s approach to inclusive language

In VMware’s Office of the CTO (OCTO), we’ve been committed to fostering an inclusive environment for all. We knew a big part of this would include inclusive language, as we are more collaborative, productive, and — most important for OCTO — innovative when we communicate better.

We developed a 90-minute training for all members of OCTO and OCTO’s Global Field, as well as any other employees interested in the training. It is focused on inclusivity, after all! In the training, we start by discussing the definition, importance, and dimensions of inclusive language. Then, we look into other elements of inclusive language through three main questions:

  • Am I including? Try to use language that includes many experiences and expands the conversation to include everyone.
  • Am I assuming? Make an effort to avoid using language that assumes that others’ experiences have been the same as your own.
  • Am I reducing? Make a conscious effort to avoid using language that insinuates stereotypes or biases that define others by narrow definitions and expectations.

Through these questions, we investigate various aspects of inclusive language, such as gender-neutral language, LGBTQ inclusion and pronoun use, disability inclusion and accessibility, racial assumptions and stereotypes, and the diversity of communication styles. Since we are a global team, we also explore inclusive-language dynamics across countries and cultures, including cultural context and feedback preferences.

Finally, we practice how to use inclusive language in our everyday lives. We develop our mistake-recovery skills, consider the impact of interruptions, and fine-tune our bystander intervention skills so we can speak up if we hear non-inclusive language, both in and out of the workplace.

You can put the concepts from the training to work in your professional and personal life to make all of the spaces around you as inclusive as possible.

Change comes through small steps

It might be intimidating to think about changing the way you speak, but for most people, it’s not actually a massive shift. We can make small changes in the way we talk to our coworkers and friends by remembering the diversity of experiences, cultures, religions, and identities of those we interact with daily. Also, these changes can come by avoiding assumptions that might be rooted in stereotypes and biases when we talk to folks who have different backgrounds than we do.

These changes won’t become natural for us overnight, and we might mess up on occasion. However, we can all make a difference, if we try.

Keeping inclusion in mind

When we are talking with people we don’t know very well — maybe in a presentation or on a new team — we should always try to include them in the conversation. If we think about how we can expand our conversation to include and acknowledge as many experiences as possible, it’s easy to avoid exclusionary or isolating topics.

A few ways we can do this:

  • Address the group with a gender-neutral greeting: a few simple examples are instead of “Hi, guys,” try “Hey team,” “Welcome, everyone,” or “Hello, all!”
  • Stick to universal and approachable conversation topics: company updates, the weather, and so on
  • Keep global and cultural diversity in mind when discussing holidays, politics, and personal topics
  • Think about the accessibility of the digital platforms you’re using as a team

Avoiding assumptions

When we are trying to include folks around us, we need to be mindful of avoiding generalizing them based on stereotypes or our own bias — especially if they are of a different gender, race, or culture than we are! To avoid this, I recommend the following tips:

  • Focus on the individual and their multifaceted personality and interests
  • Remember the diversity of LGBTQ identities, family structures, and pronoun choices — especially when you don’t know much about someone’s personal life
  • Research information on your global teammates’ cultural contexts and norms to overcome biases and avoid accidental offenses
  • Discuss as a team your communication styles, collaboration preferences, and feedback comfort-levels, as these can vary by individual, as well as by global culture

Changing the world, one person at a time

When we actively try to acknowledge all the diversity of those around us, we sometimes only focus on one part of a person — gender, race, or any other aspect about them — which reduces their identity to only that specific part. Reducing people in this way encourages us to make assumptions and even associate stereotypes or stigmas with them.

Luckily, we can avoid this by speaking with a “people first” approach. This flips the way we describe someone by putting the descriptor of them after the term “person” or “people.” For instance, instead of saying “disabled person,” we can say “person with disabilities,” or change “homeless person” to “person experiencing homelessness.” As a side note, it is true that some people prefer certain terms or phrases for their identity, so we should always respect any of their stated choices.

When hiring, we should also be mindful of reducing candidates. Terms like “diversity candidate” carry the incorrect implication that a person’s race or gender was more important than their qualifications. By focusing on a candidate as a whole person — as opposed to just their gender, race, or another aspect of their diversity — we can acknowledge all the ways they will add value to the team and prevent making any new hire feel unwelcomed.

Owning our mistakes is a critical component of the solution

No one develops a new habit overnight. When we strive to make our day-to-day language more inclusive, we will make mistakes. After all, we’re trying to shift a behavior we’ve practiced without much thinking since we learned to talk — no small feat!

When we accidentally use a non-inclusive term or we make a generalization about a group of people, we should apologize quickly. Even if no one seemed to notice, it promotes the habit of listening to ourselves as we talk and lets others know we’re trying to be more inclusive in our language (which will hopefully encourage them to do the same!)

Then, once we’ve apologized, we need to remember our mistake and avoid making it again. This is especially true if we’ve made the same mistake about a specific individual. If we continue to misgender someone after they’ve let us know their pronouns, it stops being an honest mistake and starts becoming a hurtful offense.

People might be willing to explain to us why something we said was non-inclusive, so we should appreciate that they are taking the time to help us learn. However, the responsibility falls on us alone to learn, practice, and make an effort in our inclusive language efforts.

Beyond us making a mistake, we should also practice intervening when we hear non-inclusive language inside and outside of the workplace. Often, we’re very surprised when we hear a discriminatory term or non-inclusive phrased used, so it’s super helpful to have a prepared phrase to say to address the situation. I personally like the phrase, “we don’t say that here” — feel free to use it yourself!

If you’re not comfortable in a situation, you can change the subject or cause a distraction to get others’ attention away from the person saying the non-inclusive remarks. Later, be sure to bring it up to a friend or colleague to avoid feelings of confusion or isolation.

Setting up structures within our daily workplace activities can help integrate inclusive-language practices into our daily lives. Developing a template to use during meetings may help us stay on track and allow everyone time to speak. Speaking up for others when they are interrupted gives everyone an opportunity to speak and sets a good example for others.

Managers can set inclusive language expectations with their teams, including discouraging interruptions, rotating meeting roles (such as notetaker or “devil’s advocate”), and promoting diverse perspectives as often as they can.

Inclusive language isn’t difficult — it just takes practice

As you can see, there are many ways you can shift your language to be more inclusive for all, including remembering the diversity of those around us, avoiding assumptions rooted in stereotypes, and focusing on the holistic individual instead of reducing people.

If you think of inclusive language as a muscle, you can only strengthen it by practicing it more often. Though you might make mistakes, it’s important to continue to practice using inclusive language so we make sure everyone feels seen, valued, and heard. So, now, let me ask you: what steps can you take to be more inclusive in your language today?

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