Diversity Diaries 2: Are you mental? The damage of non-inclusive language

June 8, 2021

In this second Diversity Diaries article, we will be taking a look at the damage non-inclusive language can cause.

By understanding the sliding scale of semantics in the modern-day workplace, we will illuminate some simple techniques to encourage a culture of inclusive language within your business.


Does the heading make you feel uncomfortable? It’s supposed to. Phrases such as this are still used in and out of the workplace. The definition of non-inclusive language is: Any language that treats people unfairly, insults, or excludes a person or group of persons.

Have you ever, in a moment of frustration at a situation or colleague, let slip a non-inclusive expression? It is usually in times of emotive tension that non-inclusive language is used; the effect of which, even when unintentional, can be extremely detrimental.


The damage non-inclusive language can cause ranges from mildly insulting someone to, in very extreme cases, triggering suicide. We’re not exaggerating. Bullying at work can spark mental health conditions, cause long-term psychological damage and even give rise to physical symptoms. You’ve heard the phrase ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,’ well, as I’m sure you realise, it’s complete rubbish. Workplace bullying can cause great stress, and stress is linked to high blood pressure, ulcers, panic attacks and anxiety; all physical reactions.

Alienating people at work is easily done if proper thought is not given to your use of language. Asking a person that has mental health conditions if they are ‘mental’ when disagreeing with them, will likely induce a negative reaction. But how do you know who you’re speaking to? The answer is, you don’t always, therefore you should consider your language use to all you interact with and be mindful of how what you say may be received. A person may not always vocally react and tell you they are offended. Instead they could become introverted at work, cease to speak up in meetings and withdraw from social and work interactions.


Language, the way it is used and even the very definition of words develops and changes over time. Common place expressions of the past may once have been acceptable but in the modern day are offensive. Take mental health as an example. In the past, and not even that long ago, a person with a mental disability could be referred to as ‘a retard’, ‘mentalist’, ‘crazy person’ or ‘a freak’. And a person in a wheelchair may have been labelled ‘a spastic’.
I’m making you feel uncomfortable again aren’t I? That’s a good thing. If you are reacting uneasily to the use of such terms that probably means you are already well-aware of what isn’t appropriate. But do you know what is?

Sometimes we need to describe certain characteristics but how can you refer to a group of people without causing offence? It’s quite simple. Think before you speak. Consider your use of certain phrases; is what you’re about to say negatively connoting a person’s diversity? Are you blaming someone’s bad driving on the fact they are a woman? Are you suggesting someone’s ethnicity has something to do with their behaviour at work?

Essentially, ask yourself if are you suggesting a person’s negative, or indeed positive, behaviour is caused by innate, inherited or developed intrinsic characteristics. Are you using an offensive expression to either insult a person outside that group or within that group; because, either way, you are insulting the entire group.


Groups of friends often adopt their own language, with unique phrases and expressions developed to create feelings of connectivity. But it is often amongst a group of close friends that you will find the most offensive language. Consider the appropriateness of your language use. It’s OK to have a harmless laugh with your friends but watch out that it really is harmless as your in-jokes may well be overheard.  

Adjusting your language to suit the situation is the responsibility of each individual and considering your audience is the first step. What is appropriate and what isn’t? Who are you interacting with? If you are interacting with a woman, mentioning ‘women drivers’ in a negative fashion may offend the woman. There are more obvious ones of course. Using offensive language against a homosexual is wrong but even the word ‘gay’ has changed in meaning. Once used as a word to describe a happy feeling or event, ‘gay’ is now often used as a derogatory word to describe something negative. ‘That’s gay’ or ‘you’re so gay’ are common place in generation Y’s vocabulary.

If you are interacting with someone from the transgender community using him/her might not be appropriate, consider instead using they/them. A small adjustment to an address but an adjustment that can make a big difference to how the receiver feels. But how do you know what language is appropriate? You can always ask. Ask how a person wants to be referred to and adjust accordingly.

Communication is just as relevant here as it was in our first Diversity Diaries article and will continue to be a theme running through this series. Without effective communication, inclusivity is impossible.