Inclusive Communication

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Overview

Humans have always looked for ways to communicate with one another. Through creative media such as art, music, and dance. Through words, written or spoken. Through symbols and imagery. Through our bodies, faces, and gestures. We use these – and other media – to explore ideas, express our emotions, and convey our personalities. However, language is arguably the most powerful method of communication. But language is far from simple.

Have you ever been on holiday where you didn’t speak the language? Have you ever been somewhere with a different writing system where you couldn’t read the signs? Have you ever been in a situation where people were using lots of unfamiliar jargon? Have you ever had someone shaking their head or laughing while you were talking? How did it make you feel?

Language has the power to include or exclude. Sometimes it might be our own choices that lead to that feeling of exclusion (such as when we choose to visit a country where we don’t speak the language), but sometimes those feelings of exclusion are caused by others. Their language communicates a message of disrespect or it makes us feel different, or marginalised. It makes us feel stupid, embarrassed, or anxious. It tells us that we don’t belong, that we’re not welcome, understood, or wanted.

How we use language is fundamentally linked to whether our classrooms, workplaces, communities, and societies are inclusive spaces. Language affects relationships (social relationships, relationships with classmates, and relationships with colleagues) because of the impact it can have. Colleges, universities, and workplaces are diverse places where everyone should be able to thrive and no one should feel excluded or marginalised. Thinking about how we use language and the impact our language has, not only helps those we interact with to flourish, but means we are more likely to succeed ourselves.

To build environments based on respect where people feel safe to be their full, authentic selves, we have to think about the language we use, the hidden meanings it might have, and its impact on others. It means taking responsibility for the part we play in making others feel included or excluded.

This section includes several activities to help you to reflect on how you use language and shares with you some tips on how to make sure you’re using language inclusively. And the good news is this doesn’t just relate to your interactions with classmates or colleagues. They are things you can apply in all your interactions. As you work through this section, you might also start to become aware of how others use language. As you interact with others, you can think about whether what you’re seeing and hearing reflects the characteristics of inclusive language. This is another good way to develop understanding around inclusive language. And this deeper understanding will help you to create environments in which you and others can thrive and succeed.

Suggested Readings

Bowman, K. D. (2020). Strategies for countering unconscious bias in the classroom. International Educator Magazine. https://www.nafsa.org/ie-magazine/2020/8/4/strategies-countering-unconscious-bias-classroom
Federal Social Media Accessibility Toolkit Hackpad. Improving the accessibility of social media for public service. https://digital.gov/resources/federal-social-media-accessibility-toolkit-hackpad/#improving-the-accessibility-of-social-media-for-public-service
Policy Connect/Higher Education Committee. (2020). Arriving at thriving – learning from disabled students to ensure access for all. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/10/14/new-report-the-experiences-of-disabled-students-in-higher-education/
Queen’s University. Inclusive language guidelines. https://www.queensu.ca/styleguide/inclusivelanguage
Universities UK/NUS. (2019). Black, Asian and minority ethnic student attainment at UK Universities: #CLOSINGTHEGAP. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2019/bame-student-attainment-uk-universities-closing-the-gap.pdf
The ‘Where are you from?’ project is an online photo-journal that documents people of colour’s experiences with being asked ‘Where are you from’. Explore the photos and read the stories on this website.