Most people are well-meaning when it comes to diversity and inclusion. But often, caring deeply isn’t enough. We have to practice inclusive behavior every day. And one of the most powerful ways we can do that is to talk about diversity. Or call out challenging behavior.
But our uncertainty of the right words to use about diversity can be paralyzing. Most of us are worried we’ll handle it wrong, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, ask the wrong question – and as a result we simply don’t talk about race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or any number of different dimensions at work.
But that’s not helpful. As Mellody Hobson says in Color Blind or Color Brave?, not talking about our differences is dangerous because it means we also ignore related issues like discrimination and the very real barriers to equality.
Being able to talk freely about differences without feeling intimidated, without being scared of offending someone or hurting someone’s feelings, is really important. So we’ve created this short guide on the everyday language to use to help conversation flow freely and help you feel less intimidated in talking about our differences.
📌 Disclaimer: this guide is by no means comprehensive – on the contrary, it’s far from it! For the sake of brevity, we’ve covered key topics in this guide for the dimensions of diversity that we’re most likely to shrink away from talking about.
3 simple rules to follow when talking about diversity, in or outside of the workplace
😳 Rule #1: there’s no one “right” way to talk about any of this
Sorry. It would be great if we could give you a definitive, universal glossary to cover all dimensions of diversity. The correct term to use can depend on geography, context, or even political preference (and many more factors). And these terms and their usage are constantly evolving.
That’s not to say this guide is useless — quite the opposite. It’s designed to give you the essentials and the confidence to talk about diversity.
In many cases, there’s no single “best” way to describe a dimension like gender, race, ethnicity or disability.
Guatemalan or Latina? Hard of hearing or deaf? Bangladeshi or British Asian? That’s impossible to know given they’re all acceptable descriptors – it’s really up to the individual.
So, it’s best not to make assumptions about how people identify themselves.
As long as you have good intentions and avoid obviously rude terms, it’s usually fine to ask someone how they’d describe themselves.
“Asking people is not a bad thing. People don’t get offended. Personally, I’ve never been offended with anyone asking me a question. I do get offended when people form an opinion or a perception without actually asking me. This is about the simplest of things that individuals can do to create a more inclusive environment.”
– Asif Sadiq, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at The Telegraph
Here’s how you can ask:
💡Be vulnerable: kick off with some vulnerability to disarm them and show them your intentions are good. A few suggestions:
- admit you’re clueless about this stuff
- say you’re not sure the right way to ask this and you hope it doesn’t come across as being intrusive
- if the conversation gets uncomfortable, speak about your own experience and background and explain that you’re always trying to learn more
💡Ask: be curious and respectful with your question: “I’m curious to know…
- … how you identify yourself?”
- … what’s your background?”
- … what’s your heritage?”
- … how should I refer to your disability?”
⚠️ Context is important. Ideally, you’ll be asking these questions because it’s relevant to the conversation and the relationship you have with that person. For example, if you can be specific about it, for example: “Sorry if I’m being clueless here, but I’m writing an email to make sure our offsite next week is inclusive of our team and I realized that I never checked with you — do you prefer the term Deaf, hard of hearing or something else?”.
💡Give thanks: it’s always nice to end with a “Thanks for sharing!” or similar
Don’t get caught up in being overly precious or politically correct – being fixated on the right and the wrong language will stop you from talking about diversity at all!
For many people, talking about diversity means talking about trauma, such as times they’ve been treated negatively because of their identity. You might not always get a neutral or warm response when you talk about aspects of diversity — but that’s okay. Instead, accept that there’s a chance you’ll get an awkward reply. Respect people’s different boundaries, apologize if you need to, and then move on from the conversation.
Discussing diversity and identity at work doesn’t have to be hard. You can be respectful, confident, and curious with the help of this short guide and these three ground rules: there’s no universally accepted ‘right’ way to talk about strands of diversity; treat each person as an individual; if you don’t know, ask (politely).
Want to know more terminology for talking about diversity?
For more tips on discussing race and ethnicity at work, check out our article, How to talk about race & ethnicity.
For more information on discussing disability in the workplace, check out our article, How to talk about disability (and what not to say).
To better familiarize yourself with the key diversity terminology, check out our D&I Glossary where we cover terms such as equity, ally, White privilege, and more.
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