The other day, I was out for a run when I heard Meghan Trainor’s line, “Don’t call me ‘boo’ like I’m some kind of ghost,” come through my headphones. I think I laughed in the middle of the trail. Every time I hear those lyrics, they make me chuckle.
How terms find their way into our lexicons is fascinating – some have rich etymological origins, and others appear on the pop culture scene tied to an obscure reference that allows one generation to feel linguistically in the know and another completely confused in the middle of a conversation. (For the record, I fall into the latter category most of the time!)
And just when you start to catch up and attempt to weave your newly acquired lingo into a sentence, someone usually lets you know, “We don’t say that anymore.” Well, fiddlesticks.
It’s not just younger generations who are chiding the rest of us about our word choice these days; that admonition is also being heard in newsrooms and conference rooms across the country.
When someone realizes that a word carries bias, invokes shame, or demeans in any way, it’s rather courageous of them to insert, “We don’t say that anymore” into the conversation and then explain why.
Whether we intend to or not, the terms we use can perpetuate stereotypes, reinforce biases, and deepen divisions. Conversely, choosing words carefully allows us to embrace diversity, foster understanding, and build stronger connections.
I was in a conversation with someone recently who graciously unpacked their unease over the word “beneficiary” with me. Another group is choosing to eliminate “survivor” from their marketing. These are both context-specific examples, but in both cases, they stemmed from an understanding of the weight words carry and a mindfulness of how they speak about and to others. They are both choosing ways to upgrade their vocabulary to honor those they work with.
Here’s a challenge: comb back through a non-profit or social-impact organization’s materials you’ve encountered recently (social media posts, newsletter, emails, website, etc.) and note how they refer to different individuals or groups. What sits well with you, and what doesn’t? Can you note down what you appreciate or don’t about the identifiers or terms used? This is not an exercise in shaming but rather a small activity to increase our awareness of the words we use.
Your vocabulary might be something you’ve already given a lot of thought to, or it might be something you’re just now becoming more aware of. Either way, I’ve found that language is always changing and worth paying attention to, not just for our own sake but for the dignity and respect of those around us.
So how do we upgrade our vocabulary?
Educate ourselves: To be more mindful of the words we use, it’s important to pay attention. Read widely, listen to fresh voices, and be willing to learn how different groups refer to themselves (and how they don’t). Learning about different cultures, identities, and experiences enables us to appreciate diversity and avoid unintentional biases.
Make the swap: Find fun and creative ways to swap old terms for new ones. I recently read of an elementary school teacher who artfully uses the term “your adults” when referring to the kids’ caregivers rather than “your parents” after recognizing that a number of her students are not being raised by their own parents and never wants them to feel “othered” for that reason.
Avoid stereotypes: When talking about people, it can be easy to default to using general terms based on race, age, gender, socio-economic status, etc. So consider this your invitation to stretch yourself by using neutral statements that acknowledge individuality. Try to avoid generalizations when you can and focus on the specific qualities, achievements, or experiences of individuals.
While it might feel cumbersome at times, upgrading our vocabulary is not just a matter of semantics or sounding out-of-touch; it’s a powerful way to transform our world. Choosing our words well creates a foundation for empathy, understanding, and inclusivity. It allows us to gently and heroically challenge biases and humanize others. In the face of so many needs in the world, I find it incredibly encouraging to know that the mere act of upgrading our language can build bridges, break down barriers, and inspire positive social change.
Want to dig deeper? Here are a few additional resources to explore:
Christy Kern is a seasoned communications consultant who has traveled the world working for hundreds of businesses and nonprofit organizations. With a passion for ethical storytelling, Christy coaches, leads workshops, and facilitates training sessions in order to help people become better communicators. Not only does she work with clients to find clarity within their messaging, she can help that messaging be conveyed the right way. From mission statements and marketing to speeches and conversational skills, her consulting runs the gamut and is tailored to accomplish the specific needs of each client.
After more than a decade of living abroad, Christy is currently settled in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, Hagen, and their curly canine, Watson. She’s a huge fan of putt-putt and loves searching for good tacos around town.
To learn more, get connected, or to work with Christy, click here.