Despite sounding quite British, I moved to the UK as I started my adulthood. Since then, integration into British culture and society has been challenging and full of amusing anecdotes. Most of which, unsurprisingly, are connected to language. 

One story happened in a one-to-one meeting with a CEO of an organisation I used to work for about a decade ago. To this day it still has a strong emotional resonance. The organisation was going through a major multi-faceted audit, which involved brief employee interviews with the CEO. Without any clarity on the purpose or the agenda of this meeting, I was asked a variety of both work-related and personal questions. Early on in the meeting, he asked me if I had a family. I went on to say that I do and started naming several family members. However, I was abruptly interrupted: “No, I meant - do you have children?” I was so taken aback by that comment that my mood was dampened and the conversation ended soon. There was nothing specifically rude or inappropriate in that question, yet it was based on a limited binary definition and a certain set of values. (Family = Children; Woman = Having children is a priority). Whilst this seems harmless, the way we use language and communicate have significant effects on employee satisfaction and well-being.

Expression vs Perception

The first challenge in communication is the discrepancy between what we intend to say and how it is perceived. The degrees of that vary greatly. We are so focused on what we are trying to say that we often neglect to consider the receiver’s experience. This becomes especially evident when trying to convey complex information over email. A study by Kruger, Epley and Parker (2005) on Egocentrism over email found significant disparities in communication. While communicators expected an 87% accuracy rate for their written communication, receivers rated accuracy at just 63%. This disparity becomes even more acute when trying to express and understand emotions (Busso & Narayanan, 2008).

From our experience, we see that failing to take this discrepancy into account can decrease productivity and engagement among employees. It can further lead to a marginalisation of minority groups as their views, experiences, and communication styles naturally differ from majority groups.

It is important to reflect on your communication methods as well as your style of delivery. Ask yourself what the receiver of your message will think when reading your email. If you want to achieve high-quality communication, don’t communicate to others the way you want to be communicated to. Instead, try to communicate to them in a way they prefer to be communicated to.

Which Words to use

A second challenge is that leaders often do not speak out on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) issues because they fear saying something wrong. They can be hyperfocused on which terms to use rather than the value behind them. Terminology changes over time and also varies from place to place. For example, since the Second World War, many minority groups in the UK were collectively referred to as "coloured", a term which is deprecated and offensive in modern-day usage (Mohdin, 2018). In recent years the acronym BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) has gained popularity. Nevertheless, the acronym is limited and has been heavily criticised for many reasons. A survey published in November 2020 found that the term BAME offended those whom it attempts to describe (MacInnes, 2020). Since then a lot of EDI champions and advocates explained that instead of creating a broad term capturing a variety of ethnically diverse communities it is better to use a specific term for each community or person.

Do not look for the perfect language to use, but focus on your conceptualisation of difference. Communicate with respect and deference. If you are ever unsure how to address an individual because of their race, ability, or sexuality, just ask them how they would like to be referred to and welcome self-identification.

Let’s Get Comfortable with Ambiguity 

When it comes to the topic of EDI, the truth is that there are no simple or perfect answers. The topic is very complex and evolves around human relationships, which is why it requires a thorough approach, continuous learning, and contextualisation. This is why it’s beneficial to stay away from binary definitions and become comfortable with ambiguity. You will ongoingly come across new terminology, concepts, and views which inadvertently will lead to saying something that could potentially be offensive to a group of people. It is essential to know how to respond at this moment; if you become defensive, dismissive, or argumentative, it is likely to make the situation even worse. To defuse such a situation, simply pause and reflect on how your comment made someone feel. Ask what the other person thinks and feels and then just listen attentively. Treat every awkward and difficult conversation as an opportunity to learn and grow. Practice empathy. 

Inclusive communication is crucial to building inclusive cultures. Remember that your words convey your values and beliefs. Don’t limit them; allow people to self-identify, express, and provide their definitions, even when talking about basic things - such as family.