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The Ripple Effect of Using More Inclusive Vocabulary in the Workplace

The Ripple Effect of Using More Inclusive Vocabulary in the Workplace

The small interactions we have with others add up to what our lives are. It’s often easy to overlook these moments, but they have a huge impact on how we experience each day. And most people spend one third of their lives at work!

Therefore, it’s important that as individuals we are mindful of how we make our coworkers feel through our word choices in otherwise inconsequential conversations. Here are three swaps you can make to your everyday language to start fostering an inclusive work environment.

Be gender-inclusive.

Nix the word “guys” from your vocabulary. While this word has been taken for granted as a gender-neutral term to refer to any group, its origin is referring to men or boys. Workplaces include people from across the gender spectrum, including women, non-binary, and agender people who may feel excluded by the familiar use of “guys.”

But, there are alternatives! In the professional setting, I like saying, “Hi team!” when I’m reaching out to a small group - whether it is my team per management or a project team. In larger meetings, you can welcome “everyone” or “colleagues.” If you’re in a less formal environment, you can be exceptionally creative here - one former coworker of mine suggested, “Hey nerds!”

[Related: Company Values are the Foundation of an Inclusive Company Culture]

Be inclusive of those with mental illness.

It’s common to hear “crazy” used to describe everything from how that last meeting went to how your morning was. However, this word has a history of being used as a slur against those with mental illness and to stigmatize people who are perceived as being overly emotional. Only in the past century has “crazy” come to have any positive connotation, but its history still remains.

Fortunately, there are synonyms for both the negative or positive use of the word. Maybe your boss’s request was “outrageous” or “ridiculous,” or your coworker’s presentation was “exceptional!” And if you were thinking of using “crazy” (or “bipolar” or “nuts” or “ADD”) to describe someone’s out-of-the-ordinary behavior, think about checking in with them on their state of being instead.

[Related: How to Create Belonging in the Workplace Without Undermining Diversity]

Be inclusive of disabled people.

Some people with mental illness identify as being disabled: This section, though, focuses on language that stigmatizes physical disabilities. The use of colloquial idioms like “turn a blind eye,” “fall on deaf ears,” and “don’t have a leg to stand on” perpetuate negative connotations of being disabled. These phrases have literal meanings that portray being disabled as a bad thing.

Luckily, there are other terms that can replace these phrases. Start telling your team that you’ll “ignore” your teammate’s suggestion that you take on an extra project they don’t want to work on (instead of “turn a blind eye”) or that the leadership team “has no basis for” their request (instead of “has no leg to stand on”).

Once you begin to notice the exclusive and biased origins of these and other common words and phrases, you can begin to make intentional replacements. Challenging their use in your vocabulary will promote a more inclusive environment for those working with you. In the professional environment, this has tangible benefits: a better rapport with coworkers who have felt excluded, and - hopefully - a ripple effect throughout your company of a culture of inclusion.

[Related: Gratitude at Work Spurs Empathy and Compassion]


Dr. Aliyah Weinstein is a scientist and science communicator based in the Boston area. She is passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, and volunteers with several organizations promoting DEI in STEM. You can reach out to Aliyah on Twitter @YourTurnAliyah, on her website, and via Ellevate.

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