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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

How do I keep up with the current words for things?

At last week’s microaggressions workshop, I heard a white participant muttering, “With all these words I’m not supposed to say anymore, maybe I shouldn’t say anything.” I made sure to say emphatically: “If you are afraid the word police are coming to get you, that is one hundred percent not the message of this workshop!”

Honestly, though, I understand their concern. Words have always have been fraught. It’s just that now there are spaces where the people who have been hurt can be heard.

And, language seems to be changing a lot right now. Terms I grew up believing were offensive (“queer”) are now mainstream; and phrases I used to think nothing of (“Hispanic”) are now out of favor in some circles. At the same time, new terms (“BIPOC,” “Latinx”) are ascendant among activists and academics, while plenty of my Black and Latin American friends don’t feel connected to them at all.

English has always been fluid. You could also say it’s been “colonizing.” We have absorbed foreign terms like entrepreneur and schadenfreude, alongside ones like “pow wow.” But Native Americans use “pow wow” to describe a sacred ritual which makes using it to describe any old meeting disrespectful; whereas I doubt anyone would find the use of the term entrepreneur offensive, perhaps just fancy..

With both context and current events affecting the rules, how do we know the right things to say? The simple answer is, by paying attention and trying to stay current. And if/when you say the wrong thing, listen and learn from the feedback that you get. Being called on something offensive is usually worth it. A client once told me that she had said “Someone went off the reservation on that one” during a meeting. A junior member of the team told her that the phrase is rooted in the United States’ ethnic cleansing of Indigenous people. She appreciated the feedback, and the education, and she took it out of her vocabulary. Why would she want to evoke that history in casual conversation?

You can also be proactive. Think about the type of work you do in your organization. Are there terms you use that you want to let go of? Can you read up on marginalized groups whose members you serve or employ? And can you provide resources so that folks aren’t on their own to figure it out? One of our clients, Social Finance, created a comprehensive guide to inclusive language for their employees to use. Alongside the no-nos, each of which was linked to an explanatory source, are positive tips to build effective habits of communicating inside and outside the company. It is an incredible resource.

In the end, the goal shouldn’t be purity. None of us would pass that test—and even if we did, new words will come into favor and trip us up before long. It’s not productive to judge each other for every mistake, because until you know, you just don’t know. (Persisting even after you have been informed is another story.)

And it’s never too late to learn. A woman who was talking to me on a plane once took a linguistic wrong turn and said “colored people.” I had to tell her, “We don’t say that anymore.” She looked at me with an embarrassed expression, and I said, “It’s okay. I’m a diversity consultant.”


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