Five ways to show respect with language

Emily Cotlier | July 1, 2020

Lately, many of us have been seeking ways to increase inclusion and get rid of microaggressions and bias. We want to do the work of change, starting now and building for the long term. One tool for this change is available to all of us, right away, at no cost: respectful language.

Image, two women and a man looking at a computer screen

We can all create space for respect and communication. Image by Christina / Unsplash licence

Showing respect with language is part of creating inclusion. That’s because using language with respect shows we see each other as people — not as problems, symbols, or inferiors. It helps bridge differences between ourselves and others, so we connect with each other more effectively. And it reduces exclusionary ‘microaggressions’ — small but frequent acts of bias that influence our culture.

Read more about microaggression on Wikipedia

We have five ways to help you show respect with language. At Write, not surprisingly, we focus on written communication. This time, these guidelines are for our writing, our face-to-face conversations, and places in between, such as conversations online.

Improve your tone

Do you use kind, respectful, and considerate language? That’s a good start. Now let’s think about taking that to the next level.

We can improve our tone with how we talk about actions and problems. Choose descriptive words rather than value-based or accusatory ones.

Consider how your wording might place blame for problems — even if it’s unintended.

We can also avoid exclusionary or passive-aggressive phrases. Here are some examples.

Ouch! Instead of these phrases, ask someone to share their own experiences in their own words. If you’re giving feedback, focus on desired goals rather than a person’s qualities.

Relax about grammar in person-to-person communications

Yes, that’s correct — we at Write are telling you to relax about grammar occasionally! We all want to make a good impression. But micromanaging another person’s grammar can be a way to discount the main goal of their communication. It can make them feel belittled, or even silenced.

Treat someone else’s minor grammar moments the way you hope others will treat yours. If you’re supervising or mentoring someone, or asked to provide feedback, it’s appropriate to have a word. Otherwise, move on and focus on the message.

Respect names

Begin as you mean to go on by respecting people’s names. ‘When someone remembers our name after meeting us, we feel respected and more important. It makes a positive and lasting impression on us,’ says executive coach Joyce E A Russell in The Washington Post.

Read Joyce Russell’s ‘The power of using a name’

But bias and laziness often get in the way of remembering names or pronouncing them correctly. We have all mispronounced and misspelt names, or mixed up similar names. People even get ignored because of their names. Princeton professor Arvind Narayaan chronicled on Twitter how he experienced bias that affected his career because people found his name ‘challenging’.

That means your respect for names makes a real difference. Ask people how they like to say their names, and find ways to remember their preference. Use names in conversation, and be sure to check names when proofreading emails. This applies to place names, too. In New Zealand, correct pronunciation of Māori names for towns and regions shows respect for history and Māori culture.

Read Stuff article on Māori pronunciation

Listen instead of ‘talking over’

When you open space for someone to speak, you show that you respect them. We do this every time we have a conversation with someone. Take the time to listen and let them have their say.

In contrast, ‘talking over’ someone is another common microaggression. We see it in person, where someone interrupts or dominates a conversation. We see it online, too, in interactive tools like Slack. Be aware of this, especially if you are in a position of some authority, like a manager.

If you catch yourself talking over someone else, it’s never too late to stop yourself. Simply say, ‘I’m sorry. Please tell me more,’ and then take care to listen. If you find yourself talking too much in meetings, choose your main message before you speak, and focus on that to keep yourself brief.

Use active, specific language

An active sentence includes an actor — somebody who’s going to make a change happen. Using active language shows you’ve got a plan to action or a promise to keep. Passive language, in contrast, often sounds weak and noncommittal. Compare these two statements:

Our organisation’s websites, brochures, and other public writing can be reviewed. How we and our staff speak and address others is another area for feedback.

We will recruit clients to give us feedback on our websites, brochures, and other public writing. We will also survey our clients about how we and our staff speak to them in meetings and on the phone.

The active statements sound more powerful and definite, even though they are longer. And that shows respect for the planned action.

Check out the difference between active and passive

Change takes courage

It takes courage to admit we need to change: to confess to forgetting someone’s name, or to apologise for interrupting. Being honest and admitting that is our first step to respectful communication.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.