Office Decorum: Language

Whatever your feelings on being “politically correct” may be, using a socially conscious vocabulary in the workplace is founded upon respect, which is of course a fundamental aspect of professionalism. I think we all know that racial slurs are offensive, demeaning and downright hurtful, and seem like common sense to avoid. However, other terms may not seem as obvious. Many times we use offensive terms and phrases without realizing their harmful origins or implications, and because of often wide spread usage, we don’t think twice about how our words are affecting others. Using hurtful terms largely stems out of convenience rather than ill intent. We use these words as shortcuts instead of exerting the effort to think about how to articulate what we really mean with more appropriate language.

Self-education is a great place to begin when determining what is inappropriate, and the acceptable alternatives that promote respect and inclusion (not only in the workplace, but in our personal lives, too). There are many resources available through internet research, books/articles, discussions with others, etc. The goal is not to be perfect all the time, but to show others that they matter, and that we are willing to make changes to reflect that. Please consider eliminating the following list of terms from your vocabulary (note that the list is non-exhaustive and meant only as a starting point).

1) Lame – slur against folks who are differently abled

2) Gypped – offensive to folks identifying as gypsies

3) Gay – pejorative that demeans one’s sexual orientation

4) Retarded – offensive to folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities

5) Rule of thumb – The root of this phrase is uncertain, but many believe it refers to an old law permitting husbands to beat their wives with sticks no thicker than their thumbs. The expression is (arguably) rooted in sexism and gender inequality. Try using “standard” instead.

6) Illegal alien – dehumanizes a group of people, and characterizes a person, versus their actions, as illegal. Try using  “undocumented” instead.

7) Man up – reinforces the out-dated societal gender roles that insist masculinity is synonymous with being courageous or brave, and in turn implies weakness is inherently feminine. This phrase is not only obviously oppressive to women, but also perpetuates an unfair standard that some men may not be able (or want to) meet.

Most of these terms refer to unchangeable parts of a person’s identity as bad or undeserving and can inflict sizable damage upon them. Choosing words such as, unfavorable, no good, unintelligent, frustrating, cheated, boring, unfortunate, or other alternative terms to express what you truly mean can make a huge difference in the environment you create around you. In general it is just good practice to say what you really mean in terms that do not isolate or offend.

Try to be conscious of when you find yourself using these words and when you hear others using them. A polite reminder that there are more appropriate alternatives to use may be a good idea. Be aware of how your language choices can convey your privileges and unintentionally alienate others. If you don’t know the etymology of a word or phrase, don’t use it, and look it up when you have the opportunity. It takes work, but it is worth it to ensure that your language is free of ageist, ableist, classist, heterosexist, sexist, cisgenderist, nationalist, sizeist, and racist remarks, as well as all other exclusionary terms. Hopefully we can all see the value in choosing to use the power of our words to uplift and affirm rather than inflict harm.

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