Words Matter! Create a culture of caring and belonging using inclusive language.

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Choose your words thoughtfully - words have power!

It’s been a busy few weeks in our home! After the holidays, we got out of the chilly Minnesota winter for a bit to escape to Florida. And since then, we’ve been using at least one day a week to visit colleges with our youngest daughter.

This past week, we spent Thursday and Friday on an “Upper Midwest” tour, visiting some college options in Wisconsin and Illinois, including a trip to the college where my husband and I met singing in the choir, Augustana College.

Our daughter plans to be an elementary school teacher, and she will be amazing at it! So we have been meeting with education faculty and touring education buildings. On Friday, we were in an education classroom, and I saw a poster on the wall that said, “Non-gendered substitutions for guys.” I’m always working on making sure my language is as inclusive as possible, so I asked if I could take a picture of the poster. I wanted to share it with you today, as well as a few thoughts on the importance of the words we choose and the power they have. 

In our roles as lawyers and legal professionals, we deal with a lot of words, and we know that word choice matters. That’s why it’s so important to remember that using inclusive language, especially non-gendered language, can help create the kind of cultures and workplaces where everyone can thrive. Beyond mere words, embracing inclusive language is about creating a culture of caring that fosters belonging and psychological safety and, as a result of those things, significantly boosts both the well-being and performance of legal professionals.

Understanding the Essence of Inclusive Language

Inclusive language takes basic communication to the next level. It transforms our workplace culture, our teams, and our professional relationships by making it clear that everyone belongs and no one is excluded. Research shows that when professionals feel a sense of belonging, they not only experience higher levels of well-being but also contribute to and benefit from a psychologically safe work environment.

The Psychological Safety Paradigm

Psychological safety, championed by organizational psychologist Amy Edmondson, serves as the cornerstone of an environment where legal professionals can flourish. This secure foundation is where well-being and performance thrive. When individuals feel safe voicing their thoughts and concerns without fear of judgment or discrimination and believe that they can fully be themselves at work, they are more likely to engage in meaningful conversations, share diverse perspectives, and produce their finest work.

Five Key Ways to Embrace Inclusive Language (consider these categories of identity among others: age, disability, gender and gender identity/expression, incarceration, national origin, Native and Indigenous nations, race and ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and veteran status)

Avoid Gendered Language: Language can unintentionally exclude or reinforce gender stereotypes. To embrace inclusivity, it's important to steer clear of gendered terms

Example: Instead of using "policeman," which implies a male-only profession, opt for gender-neutral alternatives like "police officer" to encompass all genders in the profession.

Respect Pronouns: Pronouns are a fundamental aspect of one's identity. To create an inclusive environment, it's crucial to ask and respect an individual's chosen pronouns.

Example: If someone prefers "they/them" pronouns, using "he" or "she" not only undermines their sense of identity but also hinders trust and understanding.

Eliminate Stereotypes: Stereotypes can perpetuate bias and limit our understanding of individuals. Embracing inclusive language means scrutinizing your words for stereotypes related to gender, race, or any other characteristic.

Example: Instead of assuming that people of a particular racial background are inherently good at certain skills, acknowledge individual talents by saying, "People from diverse racial backgrounds bring a wide range of skills and abilities to the table, and each person's strengths should be recognized irrespective of their race."

Respect Cultural Identity: Acknowledging the sovereignty and cultural identity of Native and Indigenous nations is a fundamental aspect of inclusive language. 

Example: By using their preferred names, such as "Navajo Nation" instead of "Navajo tribe," you respect their heritage and affirm their distinct status.

Prioritize People-First Language: When discussing disabilities, it's important to prioritize people-first language. This approach emphasizes the individual over their condition, showing respect and promoting understanding. 

Example: For instance, rather than labeling someone as "disabled," say "a person with a disability" to underscore their humanity and unique experiences.

The Ripple Effect: Well-Being and Performance

Embracing inclusive language within the legal profession sets off a chain reaction of positive outcomes. Well-being is enhanced as a sense of belonging deepens, which leads to reduced stress and improved mental health. Inclusive language nurtures a culture of caring, making individuals more attuned to the well-being of their colleagues. This heightened sense of belonging fuels more effective communication and collaboration, which ultimately elevates professional performance. 

Remember to show “cultural humility” - you are a learner, not the expert, on the experiences of others. And even if you don’t mean to harm or offend with your words, sometimes it happens. Listen to learn how your word choice impacted someone else, apologize, and make a better, more informed, and thoughtful choice in the future. 

Inclusive language is not a superficial linguistic shift; it's a catalyst for belonging, well-being, and enhanced performance housed within a culture of caring. By weaving non-gendered language into our legal language and fostering an environment that values well-being and belonging, we empower legal professionals to thrive in a diverse and inclusive legal community.

Remember, words matter - choose wisely and thoughtfully!