Curated Resource ( ? )

Harder than you think: developing an inclusive language guide

Harder than you think: developing an inclusive language guide

my notes ( ? )

Dawn Kofie and Etain Ní Fhearghail, 20 June 2024, Content design, Inclusive design

Content designers and guest authors, Dawn Kofie and Etain Ní Fhearghail share their experiences of developing a guide to inclusive language. They discuss what they learnt and would do differently next time.  

Why inclusive language matters 

Words hold power. They can make us feel seen and understood, or hurt and devalued. Using inclusive language means you're thinking about:

  • the impact of language,
  • the origins of phrases and idioms before you use them,
  • how you talk about people, characteristics and identities,
  • how your own identity or experiences could create bias in your content.

We developed a guide to inclusive language for colleagues. It was a lot harder than we’d expected. Here’s how we did it and what we learned. 

When signposting is not the answer

A colleague asked us to recommend a guide to inclusive language. But we were not able to find 1 comprehensive source. We found lots of great guides, but these sometimes:

  • contradicted each other, recommending different terms or conventions,
  • told users not to use terms without explaining why or providing an alternative,
  • were not kept up to date and included terms that could be problematic.

So we decided to develop a guide for our organisation. 

Reviewing existing resources

We reviewed inclusive language guides, noting their strengths, weaknesses and any inconsistencies. 

We found 3 guides that met most of our needs:

These guides were helpful but did not always give the specificity, context and detail colleagues were looking for. We realised we would have to draft our own guidance for 5 specific areas:

  • ethnicity, background and an alternative to the term ‘ethnic minorities,’
  • pronouns and gender-inclusive language,
  • disability,
  • an umbrella term for people who are not heterosexual or cisgender,
  • the distinction between neurodiverse, neurodivergent and neurotypical.

Discussing the language of identity as a group

This is when things got tough. We were a group of 3: a Black woman, a white woman and a white man. We were heterosexual and cisgender. None of us was disabled or neurodivergent. 

We were aware of the power and responsibility involved in deciding how to talk about identities we did not represent. And we felt a weight of responsibility for the groups we did represent too.

Sharing our drafts and gathering feedback

Putting a first draft in front of colleagues was a really important part of the work. We spent some time thinking about the best way to get useful feedback. 

Although people are often more candid when their feedback is anonymous, we needed to know who was responding so we could properly engage with their views. We felt it was important to let people choose whether to engage in an open discussion or reflect and respond privately.

In the end, we:

  • shared the draft on Slack but encouraged people to message us directly (DM) if they did not want to share thoughts in a thread,
  • asked for specific feedback on 3 parts of the guide,
  • asked people to limit other feedback to things they strongly disagreed with.

A difficult conversation

We had been immersed in all things inclusive language for weeks. But this was the start of the conversation for colleagues and the first time they had heard about the guide. We realised that we were not prepared for the work involved in explaining our choices, and learned that:

  • some people felt uncomfortable sharing their thoughts or presenting an opposing view publicly so kept things in the DMs,
  • people did not want to get things wrong or to appear insensitive, ignorant or offensive so they worried about confrontation,
  • some people were keen to engage on this topic but may not have considered the impact their contributions would have on the people represented by the terms in the guide,
  • the content generated lots of debate, but people struggled to suggest alternatives for terms they did not like. This maybe highlights the limitations of, and frustrations with, existing terms.

Here’s what would have helped

These actions might have made developing the guide smoother and less emotionally taxing. 

Make time to reflect

Context switching from intense, emotive topics to day-to-day work was difficult. 

We had a few chats and exchanged a few DMs about how things were going. In hindsight (which is a wonderful thing) carving out protected time away from our other work would have helped us pause and:

  • reflect,
  • process our thoughts and feelings,
  • debrief with someone experienced in handling sensitive conversations,
  • think about our responses and next steps more deeply.

Consider where to have discussions

We produced the guide in a remote-first, Slack-centred environment. Slack is good for many things; conveying empathy and nuance is not always one of them. A mixture of online discussion, in-person conversations, and small group video calls, might have felt easier for all involved. They would have given us more opportunity to draw out the terms colleagues agreed to use.

Anticipate objections

The most common reasons why people do not agree with certain terms, or find them confronting, are a Google search away. Looking into these objections would have prepared us for the kinds of points that colleagues raised. 

That said, we might have ended up going down a rabbit hole that led us towards hate speech. Ways of looking after ourselves while doing this could have included: 

  • limiting the amount of this kind of research we did,
  • processing the impact of what we found with colleagues,
  • balancing objection-finding with looking at more empathetic and constructive discussions around inclusive terms.

This GOV.UK blog post about making research safer for all involved has other suggestions about support if you’re working on sensitive topics.

Explain before sharing 

We should have explained how we developed the guide before we shared it. This might have made it easier for colleagues to understand our decisions. For example, why we suggested using the collective term ‘global majority’ instead of ‘ethnic minorities.’

Ask for support from senior leaders

The company we created the guide for encourages continuous improvement. And its staff routinely work on issues that are important to them. But this work made it clear that some projects need senior leaders’ support to be effective. 

Visible senior commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion work signals its importance more clearly than grassroots activity alone. This could be through funding, advocacy, protected time or the direct involvement of senior staff.

Consider the impact this work could have on you

Because inclusive language is a contentious issue, we knew that the process would be demanding. But we did not anticipate how much time and emotional labour would be involved in:

  • explaining how we made our decisions,
  • dealing with objections,
  • responding to criticism.

Challenging conversations about identity and labels can be triggering. So it was not easy having a Slack discussion with colleagues who have strong opinions about collective terms that describe a group you’re part of, but they’re not. 

It raised the gnarly issue of whose voices carry the most weight. Those who are most affected? Or those who are unaffected but vocal? And who has the final say? 

Keeping up with the deluge of Slack comments was difficult, because we did not expect to get so many so fast. Not responding defensively was tricky too. As was feeling the need to justify our choices instead of moderating the discussion.

What we know now

Our social identities are political, so work on inclusive language is complex. It involves a level of vulnerability that is not present in most content projects. 

If you’re undertaking this kind of work, do not underestimate its emotional impact. Be strategic about what you share, where you share it, and when. 

And have a plan for facilitating difficult conversations and navigating challenging moments. 

If you’re an organisation where this work is taking place, make it part of a wider, co-ordinated diversity, equity and inclusion strategy and provide employees with the resources and support they need. 

Inclusive language resources

If you’re looking for clear, specific and up-to-date information on inclusive language, these 3 newsletters are a good place to start:

Read the Full Post

The above notes were curated from the full post

Related reading

More Stuff I Do

More Stuff tagged guidelines , accessibility , content design , inclusive design , guides

See also: Content creation & management , UX study guides & guidelines

Cookies disclaimer saves very few cookies onto your device: we need some to monitor site traffic using Google Analytics, while another protects you from a cross-site request forgeries. Nevertheless, you can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings, you grant us permission to store that information on your device. More details in our Privacy Policy.