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Why Language Matters: Definitions, Context & Cultural Nuance

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Language is the bedrock of human interaction, an essential tool that shapes our understanding of the world and our place within it. It is through language that we share ideas, express emotions, and build relationships. However, the power of language extends beyond mere communication; it plays a pivotal role in shaping social dynamics and fostering inclusivity within diverse communities. Inclusive language matters because it respects and acknowledges the diverse identities within a community, ensuring everyone feels valued and understood.

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Language is not just a medium of communication; it is a lens through which we perceive and interpret the world. The words we choose and the way we use them reflect our values, beliefs, and cultural norms. For instance, consider the terms "underprivileged," "marginalized," and "oppressed." "Underprivileged" suggests a lack of access to certain benefits or resources, primarily focusing on economic or social status. "Marginalized" highlights social exclusion and systemic inequality, emphasizing broader societal structures that contribute to disadvantage. "Oppressed" indicates a severe level of systemic and structural discrimination and exploitation, often involving active and ongoing injustice. This subtle or not subtle differences in terminology can significantly influence our attitudes and perceptions, highlighting the importance of mindful language use.

Understanding and Misunderstanding

In diverse communities and global workforces, the risk of misunderstanding is heightened due to varied cultural backgrounds, experiences, and worldviews. Miscommunication can easily arise from differing interpretations of the same words. For example, the word "respect" may hold different connotations in different cultures. In some, it might emphasize deference to authority, while in others, it could mean mutual acknowledgment and equality. Without a shared understanding of such key terms, finding common ground becomes challenging.

In corporate and social environments, language plays a very important role in matters of diversity, equity and inclusion. Inclusivity is not merely about bringing diverse individuals together but ensuring that everyone feels valued and understood. Language is a critical component of this process. Inclusive language acknowledges and respects the diverse identities within a community. It involves using terms that are accepted and preferred by the individuals they describe.

For example, using First Nations or Indigenous instead of Indian is respectful. Previously the term "Indian" was used, which can be confusing and is often considered incorrect when referring to Native peoples of the Americas due to its association with India. "Native Indian" attempts to clarify this by specifying the Indigenous peoples of North America but can still be seen as outdated and less accurate. "Indigenous" is more respectful and acknowledges the original inhabitants of a region. "First Nations" specifically honours the status and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples in certain countries like Canada.

However, inclusive language goes beyond individual terms. It involves an ongoing effort to adapt and leaCultural Diversityrn. Language is dynamic, and what is considered inclusive today might change tomorrow. Engaging with community members, listening to their preferences, and being open to change are crucial steps in building and maintaining an inclusive environment. Avoiding assumptions about someone's background or experiences is a must if you wish to increase your cultural awareness and foster a sense of belonging.

Building Bridges with Key Terms

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Key terms are fundamental to understanding and discussing complex topics. They provide a common vocabulary that enables meaningful dialogue and collaboration. However, disagreements often arise when people have different understandings of these terms. For instance, some key DEI terms like "equity" and "equality" are a common point of confusion. Equality means treating everyone the same, while equity involves providing different levels of support based on individual needs to achieve fair outcomes. Clarifying such terms is essential for productive discussions and effective problem-solving.

While we’re at it, let’s also clarify what we mean by diversity:

Diversity - All aspects of human difference, social identities, and social group differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, creed, colour, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual identity, socio-economic status, language, culture, national origin, religion/spirituality, age, (dis)ability, and military/veteran status, political perspective, and associational preferences.

At Tough Convos, we primarily focus on the cultural aspect of diversity, which includes race, colour, ethnicity, diversity training language, nationality, and religion to some degree. To further clarify, when we talk about ‘Cultural Diversity,’ we mean the range of different societies, or peoples with different origins, religions, and traditions all living and interacting together. We often need to level set in our discussions so that everyone is on the same page and not operating from outdated or incorrect meanings.

Case of Sounding Ignorant

Here’s a perfect real-world example of the detriment caused by being misinformed, and not truly understanding what specific terminology means. You’ll notice in the FB messages below, the commenter likely didn’t even watch the video or completely misunderstood the video's focus, incorrectly linking it to trans issues, as if that’s the only diversity issue that exists. She then made the leap to questioning the value of diversity training, something of which she has no experience based on her comments.

Daphne handled it by first clarifying that there was a misunderstanding of the topic and what diversity actually means, because as a linguist and educator, she could tell the person commenting did not have a clear grasp of the terminology she was using. Many of us may feel strongly about our point of view, but it does us a true disservice to assert ourselves while sounding ignorant. Our time would be much better spent learning more about the topic so we can get answers we really want.

It is evident by Daphne’s responses that the commenter’s claims were uninformed at best, but that she really needed answers and it is our job to answer those questions without judgment. By tackling the misinformation head-on, defining the term in question, and impartially offering a rationale for the value of DEI training in this case (which has tangible benefits to companies, such as increased innovation, creativity, and profitability, not just "touchy-feely" sentiments), she was able to change that person’s perspective and have her look at the bias in her thinking. And that is what our education is really about: growth, often by getting uncomfortable.

Why is Language Important?

The value of understanding words correctly, with context and cultural nuance, cannot be overstated. It is crucial in fostering effective communication across cultures and mutual respect for that matter. We have created a new Glossary page on our website so that you have somewhere to go as a reliable resource for words that may have several meanings depending on their context, many of which you need to understand well to resolve your cultural conundrums. Ensuring you don't come off as ignorant or insensitive is our priority.

It's important to remember that everyone makes mistakes; what's essential is that we don’t take everything personally and get offended, but rather give people grace and space to learn and show improvement. This doesn't excuse those who intentionally cause harm, but for those genuinely seeking to improve, the wealth of information available offers ample opportunity for growth.

Language is a powerful tool that shapes our interactions, and influences our perceptions, and using it correctly fosters inclusivity within diverse communities. While dialogue helps to uncover underlying assumptions and biases that may hinder that inclusivity, by exploring the meanings and implications of different terms, and using language mindfully, community members can develop a deeper understanding of each other's perspectives and experiences. This process leads to building more common ground, deeper connection, and greater empathy, even across video calls! 

Embracing language becomes a bridge that connects us, paving the way to more appreciation for our differences and increased cooperation towards shared goals. Being well informed is important and is everyone’s responsibility, because it helps prevent the spread of misinformation, avoids misunderstandings, and encourages a more educated and respectful society. 


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