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Inclusive communication is more than gender-neutral language

People flourish when they are allowed to be themselves in all their diversity. A growing number of organisations are becoming aware of this and strive to create a culture where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued. A wonderful aspiration, but it does require something from organisations and their employees. Inclusive communication is essential in this context. But what is inclusive communication exactly? Why is it so important? And how do you do it? Experts on inclusive language and communication Laura Koster and Myrte van Hilten explain and give some tips.

What is inclusive communication?

Communicating inclusively means considering the other person in your use of language. It means trying to not stereotype or offend, and taking into account the other person's situation, feelings, and background. This goes beyond just gender; it's about intersectional thinking, which means taking into account not just one, but as many aspects of diversity as possible. Not only do you try to communicate in a gender-neutral way, you also take into account, for example, that a word like ‘low-educated’ can be stigmatising, that not everyone understands technical jargon, and that some words have a fraught history.

Practical examples

Unfortunately, this kind of inclusive communication is far from being the default everywhere. Myrte: “Official government letters, for example, still often use complicated language. Take this sentence from a letter from a municipal council: ‘The municipal council wishes to optimise social cohesion in the city and increase the participation rate of residents.’ The majority of the Dutch population will not understand what is meant by this. This is therefore not very inclusive, since it excludes people at the language level.”

An example of an organisation that consciously communicates inclusively is NS, says Laura: “They've switched to ‘Dear travellers’ instead of ‘Ladies and gentlemen’. Some people had to get used to it at first, but this allows NS to appeal to a wider section of society, try not to exclude anyone, and harm no one. And that's what it's all about,” says Laura.

"Language is not neutral. It defines how we see reality"

Why is inclusive communication so important?

Language creates reality. In the words of Desmond Tutu: “Language is very powerful. Language does not just describe reality. Language creates the reality it describes.” Myrte and Laura couldn't agree more. “People often think that language is neutral, but it's not,” Myrte explains. “It defines how we see reality. Just look at framing in headlines. A ‘wave of migrants’ implies that a disaster is upon us; after all, a big wave is a natural disaster. While this is actually a consequence of poor management.” Laura adds: “By communicating more inclusively, we can contribute to a more inclusive world where our differences are no longer penalised, but rather accepted and valued.”

More than ticking boxes

According to Myrte, there is a danger of ‘tick-boxing’. A company or person thinks they are being inclusive, for example, when they stop using certain words. You tick the box, and you're done. “The desire to be inclusive may be there, but the necessary knowledge to do it right is lacking. And ultimately, that doesn't work. Which is a shame,” says Myrte.

Laura also indicates that inclusion is an ongoing process: “As an organisation, it's something you have to be constantly aware of. It's essential to be prepared to be flexible and to have the will to change things where necessary. What you see, for example, is that when it comes to job applications, organisations try to be inclusive in how they draft their vacancy texts, but at the same time, they are - usually unconsciously - looking for a copy of the colleague who is leaving, or other members of the team. That is not how you make your team more diverse. It’s good to be aware of this if you really want to make a difference. We do see that more and more organisations want to get it right and we’re happy to help them do so.”

Foto In'to medewerkers Laura Koster en Myrte van Hilten
Left: Laura Koster. Right: Myrte van Hilten

What tips do you have for starting to communicate more inclusively?

Laura: “It is important to talk to diverse groups of people and really listen to them. You cannot avoid the occasional discomfort, but that is not a bad thing. Dare to make mistakes, be open to feedback, and engage with each other.” Laura herself always tries to remember that her truth is not the absolute truth. How she feels about an issue is not necessarily the only way. Laura: “You will always have unconscious biases; that is not something you can control. What you do have control over are your second thoughts and your behaviour. Check with yourself where your reaction is coming from.”

"You can't control your unconcious biases, but you do have control over your second thoughts and behaviour"

Myrte has further advice on writing more inclusively: “Try looking at your text through different glasses. And not just through the glasses of someone who displays opposite behaviour, but also of someone whose identity and experiences are different from yours. Consider culture, religion, sexual orientation, or education. Is your text still inclusive then? An example is the use of the terms ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’. If you were born and raised in the Netherlands, these may seem like neutral words, but what is it like for someone born in South America? For them, it can feel like these words affirm a ‘Western’ norm, a result of colonialism. So it’s more inclusive to designate parts of the world by the names of continents, like Europe and South America.”

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Would you also like to learn to communicate more inclusively?

At In'to Languages, we offer various customised training courses on inclusive communication. We also offer a group course on this theme (currently only available in Dutch). If you would like some more information, don't hesitate to get in touch! Our experts would love to help and think along.

Written by
L. Koster (Laura) M. van Hilten (Myrte)
Laura Koster has been working at In'to Languages since 2018. After studying Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, she completed the trainer training and specialised in intercultural awareness and inclusion.

Myrte van Hilten studied English Language and Culture and Linguistics. She works at In’to as an English language and communication trainer. Besides, she specialised in inclusive language use and offers training programmes and workshops on this topic.