How workplace language dehumanises

As content designers and UX writers, we're specialists in language. But it's not just the words we read and write that are important. Spoken language is crucial to understanding our users' needs and what they do and don't understand.

However the words we use internally, as an organisation, also has a huge impact. We can get bogged down in technical, business terms that do nothing but make us sound weird. Something I've noticed is this is common with the way we talk about people.

Language that excludes

I've worked in a few different industries, but the way we talk about people is similar. It's dehumanising. For some reason, managers can't talk about people as exactly that — people.

I've come across some examples like:

In some circumstances, talking about the “available capacity” makes sense. But a lot of the time it's used as a blanket term for individuals who do “the work”. This is the same with all these examples — it negatively reinforces hierarchy. It removes any personality and emotion from the individuals. It reduces them to nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet.

I'm sure for a lot of companies, this is exactly why. When discussing and planning large amounts of people you'll use blanket terms for ease. However, this drip feeds down so that even team managers will use it when talking about 2 or 3 people. This use of language may not seem like a big deal, but we could easily define them as microaggressions. When these add up they can negatively impact team morale and how people value their work and input.

Speaking upwards and downwards

In my experience, this language is exclusively used for those who sit lower down on the organisational structure. When people talk about those above them they use more powerful language, like:

This language isn't anymore sensitive to people as individuals. But it does resonate with power and authority. Again, this reinforces hierarchy.

Inclusive language

This reinforcement of hierarchy is typical of an old-style company. What we're seeing now is companies trying to reframe how they talk to their employees.

For example, Google is famous for calling it's people Googlers. And they call their new employees Nooglers, combining ‘new' with ‘Googler'. While there's some differences between Nooglers and Googlers, this is more inclusive. It's easy to see how this tries to include you as part of the company and its culture.

Appreciate people

To motivate people, making their work feel meaningful, let's start by appreciating them. We can stop using language that removes their humanity and abilities — we're not ‘resources'! — and start calling people ‘people'. We can use each other's names and refer to ‘the team' collectively. Let's be nice, friendly and helpful.

Let's include everyone. It's not difficult.


This article was originally published on Medium on 20 July 2018.