It can happen to the best of us. While sitting around the office trying to brainstorm an idea, finally someone shouts out, “Guys, we need to nail this, now.” Perfectly acceptable, right? Except for one important problem: not everyone sitting there is a guy.
As marketers, we debate almost everything, from strategy to KPIs to metrics to dynamic ads to logo size. But the one thing we can agree upon is the power of words. We collectively sweat words each day, wrestle with them in our heads, nuance or neuter their meaning. We write brand books and style guides about which words to use and which to avoid. 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 this element aside in our daily conversation with colleagues? How can well-intentioned, educated people sit back and use noninclusive, unconsciously biased words?
Like so many fundamental problems, this issue starts with the root. “Manpower,” “fireman,” “all men are created equal”—the list goes on, so much so that we barely even notice it. Sure, we’ve learned to keep the really hurtful words out of the office, the ones that leave no wiggle room on offensiveness. Others, however, aren’t so easy to spot—and while they may seem simple, they can convey complex messages.
Here’s a challenge. As you so carefully manage your client’s brand, try doing the same for your personal brand. Listen to the words you use, and as you take notice, pause before using them.
Not sure where to start? My agency, RPA, informally surveyed 85 respondents who shared the most cringe-worthy words. Here are a few insidious examples that you need to cut out.
This word may not seem immediately offensive, but it is for some depending on context and intent. The rule of thumb is this: If the person is over 18, she is not a girl.
But let’s break it down a different way: Regardless of age, there’s no real need to designate a colleague by gender, right? As basic as “girl” seems to be, it plays at the heart of the sometimes misunderstood, but always complicated, discussion of gender semantics. “Girl” can imply an unequal relationship. It can feel patronizing. In a world where there are gender biases, unequal power relationships and glass ceilings, language is amplified.
Beyond establishing an unfair gender dynamic, the very real issue of reverse ageism can make the word “kiddo” problematic. Most often, it’s probably intended casually, but respondents viewed it as unequal, condescending and playing to a clear power dynamic. For example, if a person is just starting out and trying to be taken seriously, “kiddo” strips away power and works against that intention.
Let’s flip this one on its head by examining the inverse: “women down.” Does it make sense yet? The implicit 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.
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 that they’re difficult to please. When the term is directed at a man, it’s intended 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 speaking without thinking.
This is the one I catch myself saying, because it seems innocent enough, right? Even though I have qualified and defended the expression to my wife, I was ultimately wrong: “Guys” singles out an entire gender. Not everyone in your office is a guy. Words to substitute when referring to a mixed-gender group could be “folks,” “y’all” (if that’s your thing) or simply “everybody.”
This word is used mostly by a person to describe themselves in order to qualify an inability to understand something, most likely related to technology or shifts in culture. However, as important as it is to not label others, it’s equally important to not label ourselves.
While there are more, let’s at least take this step forward and get started with these fundamental five. It’s easy to eye-roll this away as oversensitivity or nit-picking—and some undoubtedly will. But we work in an industry that can positively influence culture in a major way, so we need to take the lead to creating a more inclusive, respectful and compassionate environment for the people around us. Perhaps you’ve used these terms in the past, and never assumed any negative connotation. But just like the work we do with our clients, the way language is received is just as important as intent, not only for the brands we create but for the people who help us create them.
Remember: silence is not an endorsement. 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 wants that.
J Barbush is VP / Creative Director, Social Media at ad agency RPA.