Inclusive communication: make sure that everyone feels addressed

Language is not a neutral set of hard and fast rules. The way in which we speak and write shapes our reality. One aspect of this is that language can contribute to inclusion and exclusion. ‘Certain language has become so ingrained that we no longer realise that it reinforces stereotypes.’

Why is it that we often talk about working mothers but not about working fathers? And why do we usually refer to people who received a university education as highly educated and people who received a theoretical and practical education as less highly educated? Our use of language contributes to how we see reality. This, in itself, is not a problem, unless the language that we use makes people feel excluded or offended.

“We’re not always conscious of this,” says Myrte van Hilten, who is a teacher at Radboud in’to Languages. Van Hilten cites the example about working mothers. Because the emphasis has been placed on the fact that mothers work, this implies that this is unusual, and that it deviates from a norm. “Certain language has become so ingrained that we don’t realise that it reinforces stereotypes and inequality. For example, take the phrase ‘OK guys, let’s get started’. This has become such an accepted turn of phrase, that it’s even sometimes used when addressing a room full of women.”

Language changes constantly

Conversely, as the world around us changes, existing language conventions no longer offer a sufficient means for accurately describing reality. This gives rise to linguistic innovations that are not always immediately understood. Van Hilten refers to the use of the pronouns they/them/their, which are used when referring to non-binary persons. “Sometimes we see language as a set of hard and fast rules, but language is constantly changing.”

Radboud in’to Languages and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office have organised an inclusive writing workshop, which will be held on 30 November. Van Hilten will subsequently illustrate the ways in which language can exclude people. She will also provide tips for more inclusive communication. “It’s not true that certain language is right or wrong. We want to illustrate how our use of language can have unintended negative effects, but also how it can involve people. And we want to show how inclusive communication can help you to connect more with the audience with which you are communicating.”

Van Hilten points out that focusing on inclusive communication is a matter of habituation. “It’s precisely for this reason that certain language has become so ingrained and explicit linguistic innovations don’t just happen overnight. Meanwhile, as a university we can lead the way in contributing to communication that actually involves people, rather than excluding them.”

Three communication tips from Myrte van Hilten:

1. Visualise what you are writing about. If you write ’guys’, check to see who your target audience is and choose another word if it’s not a male-only audience.

2. Consider whether a particular addition is really relevant to your text. You will often see that turns of phrase like ‘the female minister’ or ‘the black actor’ are used in communications where the gender or skin colour of that person is irrelevant.
In certain cases, it is actually important to pay attention to this, for instance when you are writing about the number of female professors.

3. Choosing a certain turn of phrase can be tricky. It is difficult to see a text from someone else’s perspective. If you have any doubts about your text, let someone else read it. If neither of you can fix the text, you can enlist the help of the Translation & Editing Department at Radboud in’to Languages. Once the editors have received your text, they will read through it and check to see whether it is inclusive.

If you would like to know more about this topic or other related topics, take a look at Radboud in’to Languages’ range of Inclusive Communication Skills courses and workshops.