As part of A8C’s Creed to “never stop learning,” I recently shared in our general “watercooler” P2 a post that I’ve updated to share here in a more generalized way.
Throughout my career, I’ve noticed a lot of non-inclusive and problematic language being used casually in meetings, Slack, etc. and it is long past time that these phrases be replaced in our vernacular.
Why does this matter?
I may be biased since I’m a writer, but language is extremely important to building and maintaining culture. It’s how we communicate and share ideas, and using certain phrases and terms can very quickly isolate individuals from feeling supported and included.
Before we get to the list, please know this is coming from a place of love! You don’t know what you don’t know, so if you think to yourself “oh no, I’ve been using that!” it’s OKAY! The important thing is that you work to discard these phrases from your vocabulary moving forward.
While you may think “wow, she’s being way too politically correct,” if there is ever a chance for me to be more inclusive with my language, I’m going to take it and I hope you will, too. So let’s dive into some phrases you may not know are problematic.
This list is not exhaustive, so I’ve shared additional resources below.
- The phrase “peanut gallery” comes from the 1800s Vaudeville era, in which the term referred to the cheapest section of seats reserved for those with limited means. By the late 1800s, it became synonymous with the section of seating reserved for Black people and carried a heavily negative connotation.
- What you can use instead: avoid mass input, non-stakeholders, unnecessary parties.
- A powwow is a cultural gathering of First American peoples involving feasting, dancing, celebration, mourning, and more. The powwow is central to Indigenous culture. When used synonymously with “meeting” in a business sense, it deteriorates the significance of powwows to Indigenous tribes.
- What you can use instead: huddle, meeting, chat, get together, discuss.
- Similar to powwow, using the term “spirit animal” to describe something you identify with, or “tribe” to describe a group of people, significantly diminishes the importance of these phrases to Indigenous culture and leads to the acceptance of mainstream appropriation.
- What you can use instead: same, my people, group, like-minded.
“Bottom of the totem pole”
- Totem poles carry significant importance to Indigenous tribes, especially from the Pacific Northwest. They often represent family, rights to land, and more. These families have watched their totems destroyed, while also being appropriated by non-Native people. This phrase also diminishes the actual meaning behind placement of each totem.
- What you can use instead: least significant, not important.
“Blind spot,” “falling on deaf ears”
- While using “blind spot” or “falling on deaf ears” may seem harmless, using disability as a metaphor can perpetuate false and harmful ideas about what living and working with a disability is like.
- What you can use instead: area of weakness, weak spot, lack of knowledge // not being heard, not understood, etc.
- Another couple of seemingly harmless phrases, these terms originate from describing people with mental illnesses and/or disabilities in a negative way. The newly colloquialized meanings are not necessarily the problem, but the general ableism implied in these terms becomes harmful. Full disclosure: I even caught myself using “insane” the other day – these two are especially hard to replace because they’ve become so ingrained and desensitized in modern language.
- What you can use instead: unbelievable, silly, strange, absurd, outrageous.
“Crack the whip”
- While frequently used to describe leadership action, this phrase originates directly from American slavery, and the act of an enslaved person being punished. It carries painful connotations of oppression and racial subjugation.
- What you can use instead: double down, be strict.
“North star,” “next fall,” and other location-specific phrases
- These are not problematic in the same way as the others, but if you’re working in a globally-dispersed company, phrases that allude to a specific geographic location can very easily exclude people. It also requires them to be familiar with your location and use that as a reference to figure out what it means for them.
- What you can use instead: guiding light, specific dates and UTC time.
Gender-specific terms like “guys,” “ladies and gentlemen,” etc.
- Gender-inclusive language is not always intuitive, so this is a hard one to get past. But the more you practice it, the easier it becomes! My colleague Enfys Book provided a wonderful table for reference on what to use instead of some commonly-used gendered phrases.
|“Ladies and gentlemen”||“Everyone,” “everybody,” “folks,” “esteemed colleagues/guests,” “guys, gals, and nonbinary pals”|
|“Men and women”||“People,” “folks,” “everyone”|
|“You guys”||“Friends,” “colleagues,” “y’all,” “yinz,” “everyone,” “folks”|
|“Maternity or paternity leave”||“Parental leave”|
|“Women”/”Female” or “Men”/”Male” (when discussing a biological issue)||“people who can get XYZ disorder”|
|“Husband,” “wife,” “boyfriend,” “girlfriend”||“partner,” “spouse,” “significant other”|
|Assuming pronouns||Use “they,” or ask!|
What to do if you make a mistake
We’re all human. We make mistakes, that’s what we do! And like I mentioned before – it’s OKAY.
If you slip up and use the wrong name or pronouns for someone, here’s what to do:
- Quickly apologize
- Correct yourself
- Continue the conversation
Example: “Whoops. I’m sorry, I meant ____. As I was saying…”
Or perhaps you catch yourself using one of the other problematic phrases – use it as a teaching opportunity! Correct yourself and explain to the other person why you want to use a different phrase instead.
Example: You’re speaking to a colleague about a meeting and say “Wow, our manager really cracked the whip in there, huh?” You realize your mistake and then say, “Actually, I’d like to apologize for using that phrase, she actually was just doubling down on what she’d already told us. Did you know the phrase ‘crack the whip’ refers to enslaved people being punished? I’m working to replace that phrase, so thanks for being patient with me.”
Even More Resources
Want to learn about more problematic phrases you might not know? Here are a few more resources you can read through.
Thank you for reading and for making the commitment to replace these terms!
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