The Power of One Word

28 Nov

Language is an important part of creating and sustaining safe and inclusive space. It’s also relatively easy to change, so can start to make a difference quickly (unlike some changes that require policies, or that can get stuck in organizational red tape).  Checking your language requires awareness and commitment. It’s a decision you can make and start doing right away.

One of the examples I like to share with workshop participants is the choice of using the word “partner” instead of wife, husband, girlfriend or boyfriend – like when you are inviting the new person and their significant other to the company social, for example. If they are lesbian or gay, it suggests that you may be an ally, and provides the opportunity to come out if they wish to. “Partner” is a clue that a space may be LGBT inclusive, and clues are important.

Last week, I was returning some music equipment. The sales person was looking for the pedal, and I mentioned that I couldn’t confirm its presence since this was my partner’s rental and I was merely returning what I had been given. The response? “Let me look in this pocket to see if maybe they put it in here”.

Did you catch it? He said “they”! While not grammatically correct, it was a simple way to side-step assumptions, and a powerful example of how easy it can be to make someone feel more comfortable, and possibly make a space safer.  One choice, and one word made all the difference.

See more.

Copyright 2011 Annemarie Shrouder
author, speaker and facilitator on issues of diversity & inclusion


One Response to “The Power of One Word”

  1. Mark November 29, 2011 at 2:40 am #

    Very observant! Actually, it’s on a slightly different note but have you noticed that in some regional ‘accents’ there are instances creeping up of people saying ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’
    For example: I was watching “The Wire” the other night and one of the characters said: “If a man want something they gonna take it” or something similar. Now, I know it has long been common for people to use ‘they’ to refer to ‘someone’ when the gender is unknown, like in your example, but this seems relatively new.
    A while back I remember reading in an article on the evolution of English that eventually ‘he’ or ‘she’ may actually be replaced by ‘they’ always, rendering ‘he’ or ‘she’ obsolete.
    On the bright side, that would make all spaces safer, as you put it. On the other hand, it would also allow people to mask ignorance and prejudice.

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