Does Your Language Help or Harm Your Professional Relationships?

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A single word can make or break a relationship, especially in its early stages. This includes relationships with sales prospects, clients, and co-workers.

Most of us were raised to think that language and action are two separate things. That words don’t really matter. That an issue involving language is “just semantics.”


But in more than two decades of researching how language actually works, I’ve learned that language is social action. In fact, every single thing you say or write can cause a relationship to improve or deteriorate.

By paying attention to our language and making sure we’re using the more inclusive version, we can avoid painful mistakes. Here are three ways you can make sure that your language makes people feel recognized, taken into consideration, and valued.

How To Be Mindful of Language in the Workplace

1. Pay attention to names.

A common type of problematic language is being careless or disrespectful of names. This is especially hard on people with low-frequency names. But with some effort, you can make people with “foreign” or “difficult” names feel respected and welcomed.

Spell names correctly. Look at email signatures or other official sources and make sure you’ve got someone’s name right. If their name includes an accent, like in Renée, then use that accent.
Say names correctly. When you meet someone with a low-frequency name, repeat it back to them to check that you’ve got it right. Don’t say something like, “I’m afraid I’m going to butcher this name.” Instead say something like, “Can you help me make sure I’m pronouncing your name right?”
Create and use forms that accept a range of names. This includes very short family names, like Ng, and very long family names, like Barchas-Lichtenstein. It also includes names with a blank space in them, like Yi Shun. When people can’t register with your website using their name, and when they receive emails from you with their name wrong (like, “Hey, Yi!” instead of “Hey, Yi Shun!”) they will not think well of your company. And they may take to social media to complain about the disrespect.

2. Avoid assumptions about gender identity.

A common mistake that deeply harms relationships is misgendering someone. Here is how to avoid using language that doesn’t match a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation — which may not be obvious from how they look.

Don’t assume you know someone’s gender. For example, instead of saying something like “a man like you” or “a woman like you,” switch to “a person like you.” Until you know for sure how someone identifies, it is best to keep it neutral.
Don’t assume you know the gender of someone’s romantic interest. Instead of asking about someone’s boyfriend or wife, wait for them to tell you that person’s gender. Not everyone is straight! And not everyone fits in the gender binary.
Use the correct pronouns to refer to someone. It can be difficult to get used to saying they or them to refer to a single known person. But with practice, it gets easier and easier. Referring to someone using incorrect pronouns can have powerfully negative effects.
Use the correct honorifics to address someone. Have a standard way to determine if someone uses Ms., Mrs., Miss, Mr., Mx., Prof., Dr., or some other honorific title before their name. Then, use that honorific with them. Especially when we’re trying to show respect, it’s good to be respectful of the way someone prefers to be addressed.

3. Avoid male-specific and gender-binary language.

For most of us who were raised speaking English, our cultural programming taught us that male words could be used universally, to represent everyone. And that everyone fits in the gender binary. But neither of these things are true!

Move to gender-neutral language. Male-specific words lead to male-specific models that distort reality and cause us to make faulty judgments. Move from mankind to humankind, from middleman to intermediary, and from manmade to synthetic. Words like these are more inclusive and will be better received by people who aren’t male and dislike being excluded.

Move beyond the gender binary. Not everyone fits into the gender binary. So instead of Ladies and gentlemen, you can address a group more neutrally, like Esteemed guests. And instead of your husband or wife you can refer to your spouse or partner.

By paying attention to names, using language that doesn’t make assumptions about gender identity, and moving beyond male-specific and gender-binary words, you can improve and enhance your professional relationships.

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