The language of bias and prejudice

I’ve always been a fan of the English language and the capacity of the language to allow us to describe many things we come across in our lives. I love that we can find many subtle nuances to describe minor differences between thoughts, feelings, intentions and so much more. Our ability to articulate because of the words available to us is something I constantly marvel at.

It’s not just that we can articulate ourselves so well, though, it’s that through the power of words we can move hearts and minds. We allow people into our very beings when we use English and use it so well. That’s why many corporates and PR and comms types are constantly battling with using language that people can understand as opposed to business speak. People can’t be affected by corporate and business speak, they can be affected by words of meaning.

And further, it’s the ability of the English language to have the capacity for such articulation that we can be far more inclusive in how we are with other people. We can be inclusive in our thinking, our acceptance of others and in our actions. The way we use language to be inclusive has always been known, and it takes effort to be inclusive.

You see, it’s not about political correctness or about simply accepting difference in people when it comes to the language of inclusivity. It’s about the purposeful use of words to be inclusive. Recent examples have highlighted for me how I still have much to learn on moving beyond accepting difference to actively using language which is inclusive.

In a regular Twitter chat on Friday mornings (8am UK) using the hashtag #ldinsight, the topic of how to deliver better L&D to over 50 workforce was being discussed. I found myself regularly falling foul of saying things that were unintentionally offensive. I was saying that people over 50 “are still capable”. I was rightly challenged, by being asked to clarify what that meant. At a recent work meeting, I described a new team member in another team as the “old lady who joined” and was rightly challenged by using such a judgemental phrase.

I’ve been reading more and more about transgendered people and the very real challenges of how best to describe someone once they have completed transition. Not only that, but I’m discovering a whole new language related to gender based conversations and in defining gender that I never knew existed. My learning curve is steep on this, and at the same time I’m not sure what I’m meant to do with the knowledge I’m gaining as it’s not often I’m writing to raise awareness of issues related to transgendered people.

For people who suffer mental health issues, I’m learning that there is a wide range of support available to help their care and support, and at the same time there is still a lot of lost patience with how we actively seek to help those with such care and support needs. Thinking and acting inclusively here, I’m learning, required better understanding of the person, their context and how to help them in the best way for them. Again, I’m not often writing about raising awareness of such issues, so how do I best share what I know to build that language?

What I’m learning is that it’s not enough to accept that we should base our judgements on the merits of the people we meet. Yes, intellectually we will all understand that. It’s the purposeful use of our language which shows whether or not we seek to understand, seek to be inclusive, or seek to be exclusive.

Ultimately, my personal belief is that we have to be inclusive. Acting exclusively in any form is, in my opinion, an outdated and non-useful way to operate in the world today. There are a good many who won’t agree, can’t agree, and will argue about the virtue of exclusive practice. I’ll not be convinced easily on this.

And this is not about writing better policies or about well written e-learning or courses. Nor is it about work practice where everything and anything goes. Clearly boundaries need to be respected. This is about the active measures we take to help people know they have a place. We often say that feedback should be about the behaviour we observe and not the person. The same is true of inclusive language. It should be about the language we use not the person we’re trying to include.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

2 thoughts on “The language of bias and prejudice”

  1. Thanks for sharing Sukh. I have been having some similar conversations in the last couple of weeks where words or phrases are used with quite innocent intentions, but have significance for certain groups of people. For example, someone used the word phobia in a small icebreaker , failing to recognise that phobias are by their very nature incredibly distressing for most people to think or talk about, let alone flippantly disclose and discuss in a ‘fun’ get to know you session. The person running this session obviously had no intention whatsoever of causing distress, but has perhaps not had any friend, relative or colleague suffer such debilitating anxiety. Otherwise I am sure he would have thought twice about using the word.

    I think that there’s something about a responsibility to be willing to challenge when we see someone’s blind spot, be very open to challenge that we receive, and be willing to listen and learn about how words that may be seemingly innocuous based on your experiences in life, can be laden with significance for other people.

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