“We are keen to take up LGBT inclusion this year. One of our senior leaders has just confessed that he is gay.” I was sitting across Narendran (name changed), the OD head of an IT company. We were discussing their Diversity agenda for the year.
“Confessed?”, I asked, with a stress on the word.
“Yes!” Narendran responded wearily and went into details on how this ‘confession’ came about. He quickly told me that the annual off-site was being planned, but with a difference this year. On popular demand, it had been decided that families would be invited this year.
“Nitin (name changed) is still single, and during lunch the other day, all of us were teasing him and insisting that he bring along his girlfriend. ‘I will bring my boyfriend’, these were his exact words!”, It seemed that Narendran was still having difficulty in accepting this piece of information about his colleague. He was feeling at a loss as to how to handle the situation.
I highlighted that Nitin had ‘come out of the closet’, and not ‘confessed’.
“Same thing”, came his simple response. “The point really is that he should have talked to me about it personally, and not in the open. It has created quite a stir, not to mention a fair sense of discomfort.”
It soon became obvious to me that Narendran’s intentions were well-meaning, and maybe a bit protective towards Nitin. We quickly discussed and outlined some of the interventions towards creating inclusion of LGBT members.
I however, left the meeting with the word ‘confession’ stuck in my head. It offered me a very powerful insight: Words convey beliefs and attitudes, whatever the intentions may be.
In Narendran’s case, he was aware of the LGBT movement, and also accepting that individuals may have different sexual orientations. However, in using the word ‘confession’, he had revealed the deep-seated prejudice he carried with him.
He had already judged his colleague Nitin to be in the wrong. The situation could be layered with the perspective that being gay is not only going against the norm, but also wrong and can (even maybe should) be corrected.
This brings us to the key point that I wish to highlight in this article; the language we speak and the words we use is an extremely important aspect of creating inclusion. It is true that our intentions may not be biased, either while interacting with or referring to certain groups. However, it is equally important that we are conscious of the words we speak. Else the impact can be detrimental. Moreover, it reveals the biases we hold.
Another example of this is the common statement that I have often heard during workshops. “If an employee or a prospective is found suitable for a role, he will surely be considered. We believe in meritocracy. Gender is not of relevance while looking for prospective candidates.
‘Gender’ is not of relevance, but it is always a ‘he’ that will be considered. To me, this once again gives away the strong biases held by people. If an employee is always referred to as a ‘he’ then, how can a ‘she’ or a ‘they’ even stand a chance?
If we are to effect inclusion in spirit, we need to pay closer attention to our verbal communication.
Language can be used to build trust and bridge gaps in relationships. It is about using words that demonstrate and maintain dignity of all groups. We should be conscious if the words are affirming, or showing pity or blame in any way.
So how does an organization implement this? Include the concept of the language of inclusion in sensitization sessions, create awareness through communication mailers or newsletters which educate on appropriate terminology, run online quizzes and riddles that surface biases, campaigns on what is okay and not okay to say. A few simple steps like this can go a long way in making our language of conversation and communications more and more inclusive.