Words it’s time to stop using - and what to say instead

Resources Activism

Katherine Lim / 05.09.2023

Inclusive language matters at work (and beyond). Here’s some simple swaps you can use to make your workplace and community more inclusive and equitable – one word at a time.

Katherine Lim / 05.09.2023

Making your language more inclusive can make a huge difference, not only in helping all people feel included, but in challenging harmful assumptions and stereotypes. And though it takes work, it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Here's some places to start.

Let’s stop making assumptions about people’s relationship status

It’s time we stopped saying: “How’s your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend doing?”

What to say instead: “How’s your partner doing?”

We hear these words often, to refer to the significant other in somebody’s life without knowing who that person is. And unless you’ve exchanged these details beforehand, how do you know someone’s sexuality, gender or relationship formation? If you’re using these words, what assumptions are you making about what is ‘normal’ in your workplace or community? We want to make space for everyone to feel included, no matter who they love, whether they choose to marry, or how they choose to structure their private life. ‘Partner’ is a word you can use to be more inclusive, before you know for sure.

Let’s not choose words that have harmful stigmas.

It’s time we stopped saying: “That’s insane.”

What to say instead: “That’s unbelievable.”

Mental health and disability is often stigmatised in society. Words like ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ are sometimes used even now to refer to people who have mental health conditions, have experienced trauma, have a psychosocial disability or are neuro-diverse. But it’s also become a common way to describe something that’s unusual, silly, intense, or strange. When it’s used this way, it reinforces harmful prejudice that suggests those of us who experience the above are ‘lesser than’, or ‘inferior’ to others. Which simply isn’t true. It also doesn’t really convey what’s meant, and can distract from the point of what you’re trying to say. So, next time something out of the ordinary happens – rather than using ableist language, just say something neutral. ‘That’s unbelievable’ or ‘that’s wild’, will work just fine.

Let’s stop using words with racist origins.

It’s time we stopped saying: “Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.”

What to say instead: “Let’s take a look at the details.”

This one comes up a lot in the workplace. Perhaps you’ve heard it during a planning workshop, or anytime it’s necessary to get into the practical details. But it has a problematic history. Its exact origins are murky - it’s said that French colonists may have used this word as a derogatory way of referring to African slaves. English colonists may also have used this word to refer to the detritus left over in slave ships after they had been cleared out and eventually, used it to refer to the slaves themselves. Either way, it’s safe to say that the term has some awful racist origins. Next time this comes up, swap the words you use, and just say that you’d like to get into the details, essentials or facts, instead.

And lastly, let’s skip the gendered intros.

It’s time we stopped saying: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.”

What to say instead: “Good morning, everyone.”

Picture this. You’re listening to a presentation. All eyes are on the speaker, who is about to open the floor with an introduction which is scarce given a second thought. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” But your heart sinks. Being gender-diverse, neither ladies nor gentlemen, applies to you. Unless you know the genders of everyone in the room, it’s important to not assume. Be as inclusive as possible, and use words like ‘everyone’, ‘folks’ or ‘people’ to refer to mixed gender groups. The whole ‘ladies and gentlemen’ thing is a bit old-timey and patronising, anyway, so let’s do away with it and swap it for the many inclusive options available.

So, there you have it...

A few simple swaps that you can use to make your language more inclusive. This list is by no means exhaustive. We’ve barely scraped the surface of all of the language and words you can use - and the principles behind them. For that, we recommend our ‘Inclusive Language’ e-learning course, which we offer through Equality at Work. Until then, have conversations with those around you, check your assumptions, don’t be afraid to make mistakes (and apologise when you do) and keep learning about the language you use. It’s a simple, yet powerful step on your journey to inclusion.