Words make Worlds. That’s why I’m continuing this blog series to raise awareness about the power of Inclusive Language.
Having a sense of identity is critical to all of us. In sharing our identities with the world, we seek to feel seen and accepted. This is certainly the case for the LGBTQ+ community.
I’m joined by two colleagues in this conversation: Jennifer Rideout (Global Co-Lead, Pride Inclusive Community) and Abhinav Shikhar (APJC Co-Lead, Pride Inclusive Community). They share stories and thoughts about identity, acceptance, and the power of words.
Jennifer: “When people feel that their identity is threatened, it’s human nature to react negatively.
Remember, for people for whom language has always been inclusive — notably heterosexual, cis-gendered people — the shift to non-gendered words can feel challenging at first.
For example, I know someone who attended a conference where, in conversation, someone asked about their spouse. This person was upset because they had a husband and were used to always being asked about their husband. Specifically, the word “spouse” was used.
To them, it felt as though their identity wasn’t seen. It was eye opening to realize that this person — and others who have enjoyed the privilege of language that caters to their identity — could feel excluded. Now their identity wasn’t the only one being acknowledged through words.”
While the feeling of being excluded because of language may have been a unique experience for that person, it’s unfortunately common for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
Suppose you grew up and lived in a society with language consistent with your identity. Now you’re asked to change how to speak and incorporate inclusive language. You may feel newly excluded or threatened.
Jennifer: “Inclusive language is not intended to remove anyone’s identity.
Instead, the point is to expand respect and inclusion from some people to everyone. In individual conversations, you can be more specific and talk about your wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, or being single — whatever aligns with who you are.
Your identity out to the world does not change, and you are still part of the whole; with inclusive language, we, the LGBTQ+ community, are simply saying: “We want the same thing. We want language to include us, too.”
Abhinav: “I’ve experienced and witnessed multiple situations where people make gender-based assumptions about a significant other. I encourage people to think about how those assumptions developed over time and to question what they assume before they speak.
Language missteps from assumptions occur in other situations, such as when people mentally assign gender based on a person’s job title, role, appearance, or voice. It’s not hard to check someone’s identity, and it can make such a difference toward that person’s feeling of acceptance.”
It’s more helpful to self-check our assumptions and work to rephrase discussions until we can verify identity and pronouns.
It may seem small or unimportant, but it’s huge for those on the receiving end who are consistently misunderstood.
Jennifer: “Yes, I was told recently by a colleague that they were laughed at after sharing their pronouns in a meeting. That type of response is completely inappropriate, unprofessional, and cruel.”
It’s dehumanizing to be mocked after sharing an important aspect of your personal story. What if you shared a personal story about a parenting challenge, for example, and the listener laughed at your situation?
Respecting all identities creates a more welcoming and positive environment — personally or in the workforce. Two simple steps make an incredible difference:
- Don’t assume
Before you meet for the first time, take a moment to look someone up in your corporate directory or on LinkedIn to verify their name and pronouns.
As of May 4, Cisco’s employee directory includes pronouns. We encourage you to publish your pronouns and verify the pronouns of your coworkers. If you don’t know or can’t find out, just ask.
Abhinav: “As you learn more about and practice using inclusive language, think of yourself as an ally. Don’t think of achieving perfection because there’s always more to learn. For example, when talking with a leader a few weeks ago, talking casually about families, he did not assume that the man’s partner was a woman.
He showed inclusive behavior by using “they” when referring to the partner, which was greatly appreciated. Being an ally is a journey. You can be anywhere along the journey and continue to learn more.”
Language is one of the most tangible ways to have us all feel seen. As we celebrate PRIDE month, extend your allyship with the LGBTQ+ community. It’s more than rainbow stickers and apparel, rather it’s about the everyday practice of being an ally all year long!
Explore additional resources to boost your understanding and use of inclusive language:
Undertsanding Inclusive Language: A Framework Berkeley Haas