Writing

Inclusive language guidelines

“Language is and always will be an essential element in the struggle for understanding among peoples. Changes in the words and phrases we use to describe each other reflect whatever progress we make on the path toward a world where everyone feels respected and included.”

— Kee Malesky, NPR

Why do we need inclusive language guidelines?

As a company that prides itself on creating real connection and prioritizing relationships over return, Sprout puts a great deal of thought and care into how we speak to people. We know that oftentimes it’s not about the words we say, but how they make people feel.

As you can see in our writing goals and principles, the goal of every piece of Sprout communication is to educate, empower, support and inspire trust. Which means using language that makes all people feel seen, safe and included.

What if I’m not a writer?

The following guidelines are meant to educate and inspire our entire organization to continue striving to live out our core value, “Champion diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).” And although we do our best to embody all our values, we can always do better. Especially in the case of our ongoing DEI efforts, we must continue to work hard every day to challenge the deeply embedded habits, biases–and in this case language choices–that up until now have only managed to separate us.

Let these guidelines inform language choices that will help create real connection with all people, in all your communication.

General principles

While a list of preferred terms will help you make the most inclusive word choice in the moment, these guiding principles are meant to help you enter into a conversation or piece of communication with a more empathetic, inclusive mindset:

People-first language
Remember that there is more to a person than their descriptors. In writing (and in person) always put people before their characteristics. For example, instead of a “disabled person” or “female engineer,” use “person with a disability” and “a woman on the engineering team.”

Universal phrases
Because not every one of us shares the same background and experiences, it’s important to avoid using language and terms that may alienate certain people or groups. This includes any business/industry jargon, acronyms and even some seemingly “common” idioms which don’t translate well globally.

Self-identification
While we hope to provide guidelines on the most common preferred terms, there’s no real way to know the personal preferences of every group or individual in every situation. If you’re ever unsure, or it’s unclear, just ask. Give everyone the opportunity to self-identify.

No “normal”
Take care not to write using your own group as the reference group, which oftentimes implies a position of normality and superiority. Use of the word “normal” as a comparison group can stigmatize people who are different and imply they are abnormal. Terms like “non-white” position white people as the norm, and everyone else as a deviation or variation. Avoid these and other similar terms.

Important definitions and phrases to embrace

Ableism
Practices and dominant attitudes in society that assume there is an ideal body and mind that is better than all others

Accessibility
The practice of designing and developing web sites and web content that provide a great experience for all web users

See below for writing-specific accessibility guidelines.

And here are some of Sprout’s more comprehensive accessibility guidelines.

Ageism
A system of beliefs, attitudes and actions that stereotype and discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis of their age

Ally
Someone who supports a group other than their own (in terms of racial identity, gender, faith identity, sexual orientation, etc.) Allies acknowledge disadvantage and oppression of other groups; take risks and action on the behalf of others; and invest in strengthening their own knowledge and awareness of oppression

Affinity groups
A group of people who choose to meet to explore a shared identity such as race, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation. These groups can be further broken down into smaller groups within the two major affinities (i.e. women, LGBTQIA, non-binary, African American men/women, bi/multi-racial, etc.). At work these are sometimes called Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs

Sprout has many of its own affinity groups. You can visit this page for more information.

Cisgender
Individuals whose gender identity aligns with their birth assignment

Dominant culture
The cultural beliefs, values, and traditions that are centered and dominant in society’s structures and practices. Dominant cultural practices are thought of as “normal” and, therefore, preferred and right. As a result, diverse ways of life are often devalued, marginalized and associated with low cultural capital. Conversely, in a multicultural society, various cultures are celebrated and respected equally.

Inclusion
A dynamic state of operating in which diversity is leveraged to create a fair, healthy and high-performing organization or community. An inclusive environment ensures equitable access to resources and opportunities for all. It also enables individuals and groups to feel safe, respected, engaged, motivated and valued, for who they are and for their contributions toward organizational and societal goals.

LGBTQIA
Acronym encompassing the diverse groups of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual populations

Avoid defaulting to umbrella terms like gay or homosexual. Use LGBTQIA to refer to a broad community or be specific when relevant: lesbian, gay man, bisexual woman, etc.

When referring to the broader community, queer (as in queer people) or LGBTQIA (as in LGBTQIA people) is appropriate – gay, however, is not. LGBTQIA is only appropriate when referring to the broader community or groups of people, not when referring to individuals.

Non-binary
Any gender identity that does not fit the socially-constructed male and female binary

POC
An acronym standing for “person of color”

Underrepresented group/under indexed group
This term describes any subset of a population that holds a smaller percentage within a significant subgroup than it holds in the general population. Women are often an underrepresented group in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, for example.

Exclusive terms and phrases to avoid

Guys
This is gendered language, and should be avoided when addressing a co-ed group.
Replace with: Gender-neutral language such as: folks, people, you all, etc.

Girls/ladies/gals
Women over 18 are not “girls,” while “ladies” and “gals” are both potentially patronizing.
Replace with: Women

Handicap/handicapped
Disability rights activists question the use of these terms. In this case, we default to preferred terms.
Replace with: disabled, person with a disability

Impaired (ie. hearing impaired/visually impaired, etc)
While not every person who is deaf or blind takes issue with the term “impaired,” it may be best to avoid. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “impaired” as “being in a less than perfect or whole condition: as disabled or functionally defective.” To suggest that people who can not hear or see–or have difficulties hearing or seeing–are less than whole is neither inclusive or empathetic–and thus, not Sprout. The term also suggests impermanence, that “impairments” can be fixed–which is also not always the case.

Indian/American Indian
This language dates back to Christopher Columbus and naming a people on a Anglo-Saxon perception. It implies that these nations are only defined by how they were perceived by Europeans after 1492, when their people were massacred.
Replace with: native, indigenous

Lame
Insensitive term that was originally used to reference people with reduced mobility, then became a synonym for “uncool.” Neither use is acceptable.
Replace with: person with reduced mobility, disabled, person with a disability

Mental disability/mentally handicapped
Rarely is this characterization necessary in our writing. In the rare case it is relevant to the story, always be sure to use people-first language, and be specific with your description–you don’t want to lump all diagnoses together. This is also another opportunity for self-identification.

In addition, avoid using phrases like, “suffers from” or “victim of” because it assumes that individual is suffering or identifies as a victim–which may not accurately describe their experience. Avoid any and all language that connotes pity.
Replace with: Person who has schizophrenia, person who has depression

Minority
Not all marginalized groups are minorities, and a broader term is generally inclusive of more than race and gender. Also, the use of “minority” may imply inferior social position.
Replace with: underrepresented groups, marginalized groups

Sexual preference
Again, not something that will come up in external communication often, but important to caution against the use of this phrase. The word “preference” implies a choice, which–for many members of the LGBTQIA community–is not accurate.
Replace with: sexual orientation

Additional considerations

Overuse/misuse of diversity
Many DEI leaders feel that the term “diversity” has lost its meaning. What started as an inspirational, idealistic term, has in some way become twisted, muddied and watered down to little more than a buzzword.

One problem is that it lacks the emotional resonance needed to communicate the very real emotional root of equity and inclusion efforts. Not to mention it lacks the inference of action, which we need much more than just lip service.

It’s also too broad a term. Instead of saying you want “more diversity,” specify what you really mean ie more people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ folks, veterans, individuals with disabilities, etc.

Consider using “equality,” “equity,” “inclusion” and “belonging” in lieu of diversity.

Black vs African American vs Black American
There are a lot of differing views on the use and distinction between these terms. Because this descriptor is so subjective and personal, we encourage writers to simply ask. To reinforce our previous guidelines, always give the opportunity to self-identify.

In cases you do use the terms, Black and Black American, capitalize the “b” in black. There should also be no hyphen in Black American and African American, unless the term is used as a descriptive adjective ie. African-American ancestry, African-American history, etc

Latinx vs Hispanic
Many times these two descriptive terms are used interchangeably. But they do not refer to the same groups.

Latinx (the gender-neutral form of Latino/a) is a descriptor of people who have ancestry from Latin America.

Hispanic is a descriptor of people, nations and cultures that have a historical link to the Spanish language or the country of Spain.

There are, however, some folks who don’t feel as comfortable with the term Hispanic. So again this comes down to personal preference, and it would be best practice in this situation to allow people to self-identify.

Generic “he” in tech
Sometimes the pronoun “he” is used to describe technical roles or executive roles by default–particularly in job descriptions.

Don’t do this. Assuming that the default tech professional is a man perpetuates a misogynistic mentality, as well as the male-dominated reality of the industry. This is a great place to use the singular they.

Inclusive greetings
Echoing our guidelines around the use of more gender-neutral language, avoid addressing, acknowledging and greeting individuals and groups with assumed or collective gendered terms.

Avoid: ladies, gentlemen, ma’am, sir, girls, guys, etc Embrace: Friends, folks, everyone, you, all, etc

Gender-neutral pronouns
The singular “they” is the most common pronoun used by non-binary people, although not the only one.

While the traditional use of the singular “they” is for a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context, the new use of “they” is direct and for a person whose gender is known, but does not identify as male or female. (Merriam-Webster)

For example, when referring to a coworker whose pronouns are “they/them,” you would say, “This is my friend, _. I met them at work.” Or “They are really great at their job.”

And if you’re ever unsure of an individual’s pronouns, just ask. Keep in mind our general principle of self-identification.

It can also be helpful to indicate your pronouns in communication channels like in your email signature or Slack status. Not only does this provide the opportunity to self-identify, but it also normalizes the process and indicates a safe environment for individuals who identify as non-binary.

Trigger warnings
This watch-out may be more relevant to internal communication than external, but the guidelines remain the same in both cases.

While Sprout fosters and encourages an environment of open communication, we also want every Sprout space to feel safe. This creates a need to acknowledge and address the potential negative impact of certain content and communication.

If your message has the potential to disturb or trigger a reader, employ the use of an introductory content or trigger warning.

Common content warnings include, but are not limited to:

  • Sexual Assault
  • Abuse
  • Child abuse/pedophilia/incest
  • Animal cruelty or animal death
  • Self-harm and suicide
  • Eating disorders, body hatred and fat phobia
  • Violence
  • Pornographic content
  • Kidnapping and abduction
  • Death or dying
  • Pregnancy/childbirth
  • Miscarriages/abortion
  • Blood
  • Mental illness and ableism
  • Racism and racial slurs
  • Sexism and misogyny
  • Classism
  • Islamophobia
  • Transphobia and transmisogyny
  • Homophobia and heterosexism

A trigger warning usually takes the form of some emphasized (usually bold) text starting with a warning phrase (such as “trigger warning,” “content warning,” or just “warning”) and describing in broad terms the upsetting nature of the content. Stay broad to avoid triggering in your warning.

Some sample language might include: “Warning for content describing an experience with an eating disorder” “Content warning: child abduction”

Writing for web accessibility
Navigating online content can be difficult for people with disabilities. People with varying levels of hearing, sight, movement and cognitive impairment often rely on assistive technology—such as screen readers–to help identify and interpret what’s displayed on a web page. These screen readers, however, need the proper page information and inputs to create a smooth user experience.

There’s a common misconception that web accessibility is purely a technical responsibility of developers, but we can all do our part to help ensure our content is as inclusive as possible.

The following are writing-specific guidelines to help improve the readability of web content and communication for people with disabilities:

Organize

  • Be sure to divide large blocks of content up into smaller chunks.
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short and concise.
  • Break content up with larger, descriptive headers that are as accurate and specific as possible.
  • Employ list formatting wherever possible.
  • Utilize the inverted pyramid of messaging, where the most important information is provided as early on–and as plainly stated–as possible.

Provide

  • Links that accurately describe the destination
  • An indication when “links open in a new tab” (written in parentheses after link)
  • Thoughtful, descriptive alt text for all visual content
    • If the image is purely “decorative” and non-informational/necessary for further understanding of the article, add an empty tag (alt = "") to instruct the screen reader to skip it.
  • Transcripts and captions for multimedia

Avoid

  • All caps
  • Italics
  • Acronyms without spelling out upon first use
  • Jargon, idioms and language that would be considered overly technical