Monday, October 8, 2012

Messaging 101: Use Inclusive Language

As an undergraduate, I studied political science and women’s studies. Much of my coursework involved the importance of language in constructing and reflecting social realities. In my political and non-profit work, I employed my academic background to create more inclusive messaging—especially in social media campaigns. Below, I offer what I have learned through my professional and academic career and argue that the best social media strategies prioritize inclusive language in their protocol.
An effective social media strategy requires short and effective messaging; however, although messaging garners considerable attention among governmental and political practitioners, too often the conversation ignores the importance of inclusive language. Incorporating inclusive language into broader social media protocol builds influential messaging that reaches a broader audience and avoids, often unintentional, alienation of key voting blocks (for political campaigns) or key constituents (for governmental agencies).

Slurs of any kind are recognized as inappropriate for social media messaging; however, they are stunningly present across social media platforms, sites such as chronicle the usage of blatant slurs on social media platforms. Although campaigns and governmental accounts generally avoid obviously harmful language, they often send more subtle messages by using dominant group generics in social media content. 

Social media content that uses dominant group generics narrows its potential audience and risks offending would-be supporters. Dominant group generics include any word that uses a dominant group (white, men, able-bodied) term to refer to everyone (i.e. those that do not belong to the privileged group); for example, using "man" or "men" as a generic to refer to people of all genders. Although exclusive language often employs gender-based generics, class, race, and able-bodied generics are also commonly used without notice.

Excluding key demographics (such as women and people of color) sends an implicit message that minority groups are not valued by the governmental organization or campaign. Many government agencies seek to serve oppressed groups on the margins of society and, thus, choosing to consciously use inclusive language reinforces many agencies’ egalitarian mission. Members of privileged groups may not notice generics, but those they exclude often do notice. For example, few white consumers may pay attention to supposedly “flesh” colored Band-Aids that match the dominant group’s skin color; however, people of color more readily notice that this generic use of “flesh” does not match their own skin.

Social media is most effective when it reaches its target audience unencumbered by exclusive language. Instituting inclusive language policies helps government bodies serve and represent all people and promotes a more equal society. Below I have listed common exclusive or marginalizing terms used in social media campaigns and offered helpful substitutions for practitioners. 

For more reading on the importance of inclusive language see:

Common exclusive language employed by political/governmental social media campaigns (and helpful substitutions):

Men, man, mankind -- in reference to the general population, not individual men (try using "people" or "everyone" instead)
"You guys" (try using simply "you" or "everyone" instead)
Chairman/chairwoman (use "chair" instead)
"Man" the booth/table/campaign (use "staff" instead)
“Freshman” (use “first-year” instead)
"Man up" (avoid using in general)

Often, campaigns use terms that assume physical ability and ignores the reality of people of disabilities, such as "step up," "take a stand" or "give a hand"
Always avoid using "retarded" in social media content
Avoid "handicapped" and "disabled people," employ "people with disabilities" instead

Practice precaution around usage of demeaning terms such as "slums" and "ghetto"
"Working poor" is a powerful alternative to terms such as "the (government) dependent class(es)" or "the poor" in general

Avoid "non-white" and use "people of color" instead

Sexually/Gender Identity-based-
Avoid "homosexual" and use "LGBT" or "gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender" (as appropriate)
Avoid references to "family" that might exclude some families (specifically LGBT families and other families that have adopted/non-biological children)

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