The Power of Using Inclusive Language When Meeting People
Updated: Oct 3, 2019
As a military spouse, I move frequently. And as a pathological extrovert, making new friends is a necessity. When I meet people it amazes me the assumptions they make about my age, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, income, and level of education. Some of the assumptions they make are right, but often they miss the mark.
I am not exempt from making these assumptions. When my spouse speaks of his superior officers, I tend to make two assumptions; 1 - in my mind they are male, and 2 - they are married. Although it is statistically likely, this is something that is always changing and I would prefer to think and speak more inclusively.
It’s natural for us to categorize people, using mental shortcuts to understand others. But there is value in challenging those automatic assumptions. When we learn to catch ourselves in the act of assuming and automatically categorizing, we are more likely to actually see the person in front of us, not a projection of our own beliefs. One way we can start doing this, is to use more inclusive language.
What I mean by inclusive language is saying things in a slightly different way, that conveys the same message but removes assumptions about gender, sexuality, ability, or other identifying characteristics. So instead of assuming we know who someone is and how they identify, we just admit to ourselves that we don’t, and that’s okay.
Ways I use inclusive language when I meet new people:
Marital status - Instead of meeting someone new and asking questions like, “Are you married?” or “When will I meet your wife/husband?” I try to say things like, “Do you have a partner?” and “When will I meet them?”
Family structure - When my kiddos have friends over, I find myself in conversation with 6-year-olds or their parents. In learning more about their families, I ask questions like “Do you have any siblings?”
Education level - Unless I need to know, I don’t ask people about their education. I’m used to talking (and hopefully not bragging) about my education, but I realize that it’s not important to most people and can make people feel condescended to. So, unless other people bring it up, or it’s clearly relevant to the conversation, I don’t ask. I also don’t assume that everyone went to college.
Gender identity - When I introduce myself to new clients at work I say, “Hi, I’m Dr. Summers Temple. You can call me Irene. I use the pronouns she/her/hers.” When I tell another person my pronouns, it’s communicates to them that I am open to however they identify. We don’t know anyone’s gender identity (another topic for another day) until they tell us. So get comfortable with using people’s names instead of gendered pronouns. Or use they/them/theirs until someone corrects you. Getting comfortable with the singular they is challenging, but it’s worth it.
Relationship status/Sexual orientation - Instead of asking someone, “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” I say things like “Are you dating/seeing anyone?” I also ask about partners, because not everyone who is in a committed relationship is married. To be most inclusive, changing the question all together to “Are you in a romantic relationship?” allows for individuals in any form of relationship, including polyamorous relationships to feel seen and welcome in the conversation.
When we use more inclusive language we broaden the boundaries of our community. We welcome more people in and communicate that there is space for everyone. Feeling welcome helps us to feel more at home. And moving and constantly starting over makes feeling at home vital to thriving in the military spouse life.
Irene Summers Temple, PhD is a licensed Counseling Psychologist in private practice at Irene Summers Temple, PhD LLC in Rapid City, SD. She specializes in multicultural counseling, coaching, and consultation, serving helping professionals, People of Color, and LGBTQ+ individuals, fostering mental wellness and identity development.