It can happen to the best of us. Sitting around the office, trying to brainstorm an idea, finally someone shouts out “Guys, we need to nail this, now.” Perfectly acceptable, right? Except, not everyone sitting there is a guy. And that’s kind of a problem.
We collectively sweat words each day, wrestle with them in our heads, nuance their meaning. Erase, fight, argue, push, pull. We write brand books and style guides about which words to use and not. We sharpen their meanings with a razor, all in service to the product or service we represent.
So how can a smart group of marketers, who fully understand the power of words, casually toss that aside in our daily conversation with colleagues? How can well-intentioned, educated people sit back and use non-inclusive, unconsciously biased words?
As marketers, we debate almost everything, from strategy to KPI’s to metrics to dynamic ads to logo size. But the one thing we can agree upon is the power of words.
WORDS HAVE POWER
Well, it starts with the root of our language. “Manpower” this, “Fireman” that, “All men are created equal.” The list goes on, so much so that we barely even notice it. And it’s not just men using these terms, it’s women too.
Removing these time-worn expressions isn’t easy. But it isn’t hard either. And as we strive towards a more balanced workforce, inclusive of all, we should work toward clearing these artifacts from our past.
WORDS ARE COMPLEX
We’ve grown adept at keeping the really hurtful words out of the office. The ones that leave no wiggle room on offensiveness. But other words are not as easy to spot. They are simple, yet can convey complex messages.
So here’s a challenge. As you so carefully manage your client’s brand, try doing it for your personal brand. Listen to the words you use, and as you take notice, pause before using them.
This word is not immediately offensive. But it is for some, given meaning through context and intent. The rule of thumb is this, if the person is over 18, she is not a girl. But regardless of age, there is no real need to designate a colleague by gender, right? As basic as “girl” seems to be, it plays at the heart of the complicated, and sometimes misunderstood gender semantics discussion. “Girl” can set up an unequal relationship. It can feel patronizing. And in a world where there are gender biases, unequal power relationships and glass ceilings, language can feel amplified.
Beyond establishing an unfair gender dynamic, there is a bit of reverse ageism that presumably drives the feelings against its use. Most often, it is probably meant in a casual way, but respondents viewed it as unequal or condescending, and plays to a clear power dynamic. If a person is starting out and trying to be taken seriously, “Kiddo” strips away power and works against that intention.
3. MAN UP
Let’s examine the inverse, “Women down?” Does it make sense, yet? There is something implicit about this term, and the subtext is that men are stronger. Strength comes in many varieties these days, and it’s bad form to suggest men are stronger than women in any fashion.
This is a bit more obvious. There are many uses, parts of speech and meanings of this term. And none of them are good. Rooted in gender, the implication is that women are complainers or difficult. When the term is directed at a man, it is meant to signal weakness. This word frustrates me the most, especially by the frequency in which I hear it. Uses like “Resting Bitch Face” have gone mainstream, which is the result of saying things, without thinking first.
Seems innocent enough, right? Even women use that expression. But in the end, it singles out a gender, and as this list suggests, that is never a good thing. This is the one I catch myself saying. And even though I have qualified and defended the expression to my wife, I was ultimately wrong and am hyper aware of when it slips. Words to substitute when referring to a mixed-gender group could be “Folks,” “Y’all” (if you’re from a state that says that) or simply “everybody.”
It is used mostly by a people to describe themselves. She or he self-identified as a “dinosaur” in order to qualify an inability to understand something, most likely related to technology or shifts in culture. As important as it is to not label others, it’s equally important to not label ourselves. That term plays into ageism dynamic many people in the workforce experience and can set a damaging precedent.
Yes, there are more. But let’s take a step forward and get started with these. We work in an industry that can positively influence culture, so we need to take the lead to make things better and more respectful for the people around us. Once we take notice of the words we use, we become mindful of how they sound and what they convey. And that’s a good thing.
It’s easy to eye roll this away as oversensitivity. And some may. But the way language is received is important, not just for the brands we create, but for the people who help us create them. Perhaps you have used these terms in the past, and never assumed any negative connotation. And maybe we were never told. Working in an industry that helps drive culture for good or bad, we need to take the lead to make things better. And if you think it’s ok because no one has ever complained, remember this:
SILENCE IS NOT AN ENDORSEMENT
Just because people don’t speak up, doesn’t make it ok. So don’t put co-workers in a situation where they feel less valued, or undermined, even if that was not the intention. Because when our language includes terms that are unequal, people begin to feel that way. And none of us want that.
So let’s all listen as we speak and be the spark to create a language that feels inclusive, contemporary and reflective of today’s workforce.
Ready people? Let’s nail this now.