I was inspired to write this blog after getting off the London tube at Embankment the other day on the way to the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) where I am a member. There was some fairly intense leaf sucking and blowing going on in the gardens which I usually cross to take a more scenic, natural route. I find this provides me with mindfulness ahead of important meetings. However, on this occasion, I was struck by the presence of a public sign which said ‘Danger, Men at work’.
I always think of my wife when I witness this kind of thing. It would fire her up inside. Why? Because it implies a number of things. 1) Only men can do dangerous work. Really…Leaf blowing?! 2) That only men do manual work. Again, surely not?! 3) That whichever system that signed off on the production of this sign is not thinking too mindfully about things.
I wondered if the workers themselves and general public walking past were not bothered by what seemed like a form of everyday sexism and rather than stop and take stock like me, either a) saw it and didn’t act, or b) didn’t notice it because they were too busy in their own worlds, c) were too conditioned to this type of thing or, d) saw it and were not concerned. Whichever camp you sit in, I am not offended as it is not mine, or anyone else’s job, to tell you how to think or feel. Your world and your views are your own. What I am simply trying to point out is that language can have an impact. It is sometimes the subtleties and nuances of language which might seem small on the face of it, but actually have profound effects on people and their navigation of the constructed world around us. Is this sign very inclusive? My personal opinion is no. It limits people’s abilities to relate and feel included and could instead read a more equal and inclusive; ‘Danger, people working’.
This brings me on to a wider debate around language more generally and how it can inspire and engage others, be neutral and inclusive or, confuse and demotivate.
In leadership and team coaching we find that the story telling abilities and use of descriptive language is extremely powerful when bringing ideas to life. If asked to communicate a new product or concept and you cannot find the words, perhaps the idea needs more refinement and thinking or maybe you need to think more creatively about ways to describe what it is. For example, people on LinkedIn are now using highly descriptive ways to demonstrate what they do. E.g: rather than ‘Coach’, they might put ‘I help leaders inspire people and have impact’. There is more of an emotional response and connection to the latter and it also helps to tell you – the reader, what’s really going on.
The last area I’ll touch on and one very important to me, is the use of gender neutral language, particularly in relation to the LGBTQ+ community. By being and becoming more inclusive in the workplace, we need to try and use language that invites people to connect and feel secure. If we try and use the old systems and ways of categorising our world into feminine and masculine denominations, we are missing a huge area in between. If you look to German and other languages, they actually have a ‘neutral’ alongside the ‘female’ and ‘male’ descriptor. If it already exists out there and has done for ages, then why isn’t neutral language more widely used? It’s an important time for organisations as not only are they trying to become more inclusive internally but the way they operate is also reflected outwards and can help engage the external world around them – clients, suppliers etc.
The issue is around the cost of thinking twice. This phrase came out of a recent LGBTQ+ conversation I had with a global bank. We discussed the stress it causes people in the workplace if they have to approach conversations with a double-guess mentality. This is of course, not restricted to one community as the cost of thinking twice can surface in any situation, for example, when an employee has low confidence in how they might come across to another and rather than act naturally, over-rehearse what they will say before they say it, causing additional strain and restraint in delivery.
When I was working in a global bank and sitting on the LGBTQ+ committee, we would be presented with examples whereby people felt uneasy about being fully open about themselves at work. For example, when a colleague was asked by a co-worker about their weekend, instead of launching straight into it, they felt they had to re-calibrate in the moment (because they were unsure how included they would feel) and think twice about how they described their partner, and what role they played during the weekend’s events. They found this rather exhausting to do, day in; day out. When these individuals finally felt strong enough to come out in the work environment, the stress evaporated and they were far more at ease with everyone. By removing this stress or cost of thinking twice, people feel more creative freedom and bring their fuller selves to work. This in turn, can improve one’s sense of empowerment and productivity over time.
This blog is being written at a time when Merriam-Webster announced ‘they’ as the 2019 word of the year. They write “English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence ‘they’ has been used for this purpose for over 600 years”. This is an important development of our times as we see more people coming out and identifying as non-binary.
In coaching, we try and break out of ‘boxed’ thinking and categorisation of the world. After-all, we only categorise the world to make it easier on ourselves to make sense of it. Does it add value to polarise and put people or things in boxes? It can sometimes feel a bit one-dimensional and a bit restrictive. What we try and do, is get people to see limitless opportunities and break down the boundaries that may or may not exist, to help freedom of expression, creativity and innovation.
More neutral language such as ‘they’ is therefore a welcome step to helping people feel more included. If you think about it…we all have something in common – we are all human and a ‘they’.
In summary, language has a huge impact on people in a variety of ways from an individual level, to a team dynamics and organisational culture perspective. Leaders, managers and employees need to become more aware and skilful in 2020 and beyond in using language to include and engage rather than divide.