Better words for a better understanding

This article was originally published as an article on Grenier. To view the original article (in French), click here.

Anik Pelletier is Vice President of Bleublancrouge’s Brand Language service. She’s been working in the language sector for 30 years, with a particular focus on francization for the past 20.

I was surprised to find myself feeling quite emotional, yet humbled, when I began to write this text. Nearly every day at work, I am lucky to be able to learn about openness to others.

After all, curiosity and receptivity have always been part of my professional life. When we work in a field such as translation, we discover all kinds of new concepts, ones which would have remained foreign to us had we not been tasked with rendering them in another language. Working in a foreign language and experiencing foreign cultures and concepts really allows us to broaden our horizons. And in a context where the polarization of opinions all too often threatens to break our social fabric, being open to others has never been more important.

A whole new world

I’ve recently immersed myself in the world of inclusive writing and, in these last few months, I’ve come to realize just how small my world actually was. The reality of those around me is still quite a mystery to me. My familiarity with Indigenous Peoples, people with disabilities, and racialized communities is rather limited. Their reality is one I’ve rarely had to put into words, or is something I have had to name back in the day, when we didn’t really question the weight of our words.

In these last few months, my research and observations about language have led me to discover the importance of how people feel about the words we use to name them. I don’t subscribe to censorship and cancel culture, especially where education is concerned, but there are definitely words we can use to talk to one another in a more just, more respectful way.

Words that pack a punch

The growing polarization of our society means we need to stop and think – and evolve. When we really listen to another person, when we put ourselves in their shoes and open ourselves up to their world, we quickly learn that words can pack a real punch. That might sound a bit harsh, but I stand behind it. Certain words can, indeed, have a violent impact on others. So it’s up to the language specialists out there – the writers, journalists and communicators of all kinds – to adapt, and to use appropriate language. It’s how words enter our vernacular, and it’s how we make sure no one gets left behind.

Adopting this new process has really made me step outside my comfort zone. As someone who has had relative ease working with words over the years, I suddenly began to doubt, to rephrase, to back up my choice of words with every resource I could find. I’m no longer motivated by finding the mot juste – rather, it’s the discovery of the other that inspires me to delve deeper, to learn more, to understand better and to do them justice in my communications.

What are the better words? 

So, where do we begin? What words can we use to be more open to others? Here are a few guidelines. 

  • If you are able to do so, ask the people you are writing about what terms or expressions they identify with.
  • Keep up to date on terminological and linguistic trends. We are currently in a significant transition period, and what seems inconsequential today may quite quickly become standard practice tomorrow.
  • When in doubt, ask an inclusive writing expert. They’ll be able to provide valuable guidance.
  • And if you make a mistake, there is no shame in acknowledging it. And apologizing.

Still have questions about inclusive language? The Brand Language team has created an inclusive writing guide and regularly provides consulting services to organizations that want to ensure their communications are well adapted to their target audiences.