Is Inclusive Language Inherently Exclusionary?

Maybe there's a better way: open language

"I just wouldn't want to say the wrong thing."
"I don't want to upset anyone."
"I'm not sure I know the right words."

I hear these statements almost every day when talking to people about creative inclusion.

The desire to be diverse, represent all kinds of folk, and welcome the identities, sexualities, ethnicities, neurotypes and disabilities that make the world so rich is 100 percent there—but people are scared when it comes to putting the words out there. They believe inclusive language is difficult to grasp unless you've spent hours and hours researching it, but is that true? And is being inclusive the be all and end all? Maybe not.

What is inclusive language?

It's actively making choices when we write or speak that include a wider range of people than what we may be used to "typically" capturing. This means actively referencing groups you want to ensure feel included in what you're saying or presenting.

For instance, let's say a brand wants to launch a women's book club.

The ad may say: "For ladies who love to read."

The trans-inclusive version of that could be:
"For ladies, transwomen and nonbinary femmes who love to read."

The neurodiverse-inclusive version could be:
"For ladies of all neurotypes who love to read."

The disability-inclusive version could be:
"An accessible space for ladies who love to read."

And the all-inclusive version could be:
"For all ladies who love to read, including trans, non-binary, neurodiverse and disabled women."

Each of these definitively makes the effort to signpost that the book club is an inclusive space for that minority group.

But let's be honest, the intention of inclusivity can get wordy. Having so many different options can feel overwhelming, and often, as words shift or change, it can become confusing.

A great example of this is "womxn," a term that was used for a while with the intention of including transwomen and non-binary folk in female-focused spaces. It didn't take long for this "inclusive language" to gain infamy, due to othering trans folk and inferring they weren't "real women." It also has its origins as a term that Black feminist organizations used to empower their intersectionality (which was now being appropriated). Naturally, we stopped using it.

Except not everyone was made aware of this "public" decision—including the streaming platform Twitch, which used it in its 2021 tweet for IWD and was met with backlash.

Herein presents the problem. Using inclusive language naturally can take a decent level of education to represent communities appropriately, and keeping up with how they change is a task that will never end.

So, if you're not comfortable using inclusive terms "like a local," am I suggesting it's best to avoid them entirely?

No. In our industry we need to represent and respect all.

Let me present a potential solution—open language.

While I have no idea if this is the right term for it, "open language" is something I've been talking a lot about recently with my colleagues and clients. My theory goes like this—if you want to include everyone, but don't feel confident using the inclusive terms, let's find an alternative.

Take the phrase "Hello, Mums and Dads." As a parent I hear this everywhere we go: school, days out, restaurants, adverts, packaging, etc. However, it's inherently (although unintentionally) exclusionary. Not everyone is one of these binary options.

To make it inclusive, one might resort to "Hello, Mums, Dads, Zazas, Babas, Rens, Pas and all other parents of any gender." But that doesn't really roll of the tongue, does it? Plus, we haven't even scratched the surface of names for parents.

The first step to the open language ladder may very well be "Hello, parents." However, not everyone has parents. Some people have aunties, godparents, grandparents, a carer, a brother, a friend.

The next step up may present a version of that statement as "Hello, adults." The problem here is a distinct lack of personality.

Step again, rethink the sentence. "Greetings, grownups" or "Good evening, loved ones" or "Hello to all of you who managed to convince a child to put their shoes on and made it here today." They're natural, conversational, welcoming and most importantly INCLUDE ALL.

This is open language. Taking what you want to say and leveling up until it works as an umbrella for all kinds, all folks, and all situations.

Here are my top three tips on how to start using "open language."

• Question everything, starting with asking yourself, "Does this exclude anyone?"
• Talk like a human. The more conversational the language, the more welcoming it feels.
• Write out all the groups/people you want to include and then simplify until you find an umbrella term that works for you.

Should we use open language every time?

No. There's a big difference between welcoming everyone and building communications with minority communities at the core. It's about understanding where and how to use both inclusive and open language.

Sometimes the need to signpost to communities that they are included, rather than "tolerated," ensures they feel welcomed and safe. Telling disabled folks a space is accessible for all, a gender non-conforming shopper that they will have appropriate facilities, or a neurodiverse person that their needs will be understood, is an incredibly important thing.

However, when you're writing, generally remember the power of being "open," because a small change in language can make an incredible shift for inclusivity.

Profile picture for user Jamie June Hill
Jamie June Hill
Jamie June Hill (they/them) sits as VMLY&R Commerce's first creative inclusivity director, a key part of the agency's growing DEI efforts to establish itself as leader in inclusive thinking. Jamie is responsible for collaborating with the agency's creative and people communities to ensure the commerce agency's creative input and output are truly inclusive, with a specific focus on LGBTQ+, neurodivergent and disabled communities.

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