Six types of language that are hurting your company culture

Don’t commit a language foul—and stop with the sports already.
Don’t commit a language foul—and stop with the sports already.
Image: Pool via REUTERS/Paul Ellis
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During my first year working in technology, I learned that a friend of mine, a mathematician, was coming to town to do a talk on his latest research. I had been a math major, and I was so excited to learn about his work.

I arrived at the event a few minutes early. My friend wasn’t there yet, but there were a couple of guys waiting for things to get started. Seeing me walk through the door, one of them helpfully said, “Are you looking for the design conference? I think that’s downstairs.”

My excitement vanished. It didn’t even occur to him that I might be there for the math talk.

The truth is these stories are not rare—and they’re not limited to women. Regularly, our assumptions but also our words can undermine, alienate, or otherwise harm people from different backgrounds. It isn’t always so blatant and obvious; a lot of phrases people use with the intention of creating camaraderie or intending to be more inclusive can actually have the opposite effect.
If you care about creating an inclusive and welcoming workplace for you and your co-workers, here are six types of language to leave behind.

1. Sports metaphors

We often think of our departments or co-workers as our team–because they are! That makes it easy to slip into using sports metaphors and sayings. How often have you been asked to “move the ball forward” or heard someone discuss a “slam dunk” sales quarter? These sports-focused idioms aren’t always understood by those who might not follow sports, or who follow sports other than American football and basketball. We often rely on the language of sports to motivate or bond a team, but rather than team-building, you could be leaving someone out.

2. Corporate jargon

“Circle back,” “double-click,” “paradigm.” You could fill a whole binder with common corporate terms that get tossed around the workplace. These sayings and words were born out of a predominately white, male corporate culture. While it’s been readily adopted by some, the jargon might leave others feeling confused. Instead, opt for more straightforward, simple phrases. Instead of “value-add” use “benefit.” Instead of “shift the paradigm,” try “change.”

3. Americanisms

If you’ve ever worked for a global company, you’ve quickly found that some things just don’t translate in different cultures. A lot of corporate language has originated in the US, but if you’re looking to be inclusive to all your co-workers, it’s worth rooting out phrases that are uniquely American. “Mom-and-pop shop” isn’t widely understood outside the US, and some phrases, like “trailblazer,” come from a romanticization of the American frontier.

4. Harmful language that is culturally insensitive

There are lots of ways commonly used phrases may accidentally be creating harm for others. It’s important to note that intent isn’t important here; whether you intend it or not, if someone feels harmed by your language, then that language is harmful. There are phrases that can be culturally misappropriated, like “pow-wow” or “tribe,” which have very specific significance to some. There are phrases with problematic, racist roots like “grandfathered in,” which originates from the racist Jim Crow laws of the American South. And, there are terms that are used incorrectly, like saying “diverse person”—when diverse can only describe a group, not an individual.

5. Unnecessarily gendered terms

For a long time, there was a tendency to default to male pronouns when gender wasn’t apparent. There are many words and phrases that still follow this pattern, like “chairman” or “man-hours,” even as our understanding of gender has evolved. It’s best to leave these unnecessarily gendered words out when you’re speaking, and find gender-neutral alternatives­ like “chairperson” or “work hours.” One thing we often see in job posts is “he/she.” While this construction was once seen as progressive for not defaulting to “he,” now, it reinforces gender as a binary concept. Opting for the singular “they” removes gender from a place where it isn’t needed.

6. Ableist language

Phrases like “fall on deaf ears” or “turn a blind eye” are idioms that cast a negative connotation on people’s various abilities, so it is best to drop them and find alternatives that make your point without potentially offending your audience.

Language affects our sense of belonging

In the past year and a half, our workplaces have been transformed. There has been real reflection on how we can create more inclusive cultures and address inequity in our companies. But this work is not the responsibility of just one person or leadership team. It’s up to everyone. We can each commit to eliminating language that is likely to alienate others and impact one’s sense of belonging, and build the inclusive work cultures we aspire to have.