The words we choose to use are important. We've already talked about accessibility and search engine optimisation in How To Write Great Web Copy and How To Write Good Alt Text. But this is a different take on our use of language …
Words have power. They can mean different things to different people. What's everyday language to you could be belittling or hurtful or othering to me. Or vice-versa.
What are you talking about?
Tech companies (and others) are becoming more mindful of some uncomfortable language that's made it into our lexicon. Used daily, it's understood by everyone in the context of work, but not well considered outside of that.
So, what's the problem?
When we use words without much consideration, we can end up implying prejudice or bias. This could be based on age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability – or any other characteristic of us being human.
For example, at Supercool we have 'Master' servers as part of our tech set-up.
This name comes from 'Master' and 'Slave'; long used in computing and other technical contexts for situations where one process / entity controls another. Sometimes the metaphor's less precise, with Master as the primary entity, with Slaves 'below' it. The metaphor's easy to understand, so it stuck. However, the original meaning of Master and Slave isn't something any of us want to endorse or normalise.
We've never had Slave servers, but knowing where the name Master comes from – plus its patriarchal connotations – makes it pretty unpalatable.
Another example is whitelist / blacklist. In context, it's not used to either glorify or denigrate anyone. But suggesting that white things are inherently 'good' / 'positive' / 'best', and black things 'bad' / 'negative' / 'worst'? It's not far-fetched to think that this could be reinforcing wrong-headed ideas.
How are we minding our language?
We're working on being more inclusive – see our Manifesto On Inclusivity – and the language we use, or don't use, is part of this. A few examples:
- We're planning on renaming 'Master' branches. Current contenders include 'Main' and 'Primary'. It's not straightforward to change because tech = complicated, so this is a medium-term thing.
- We've switched from whitelist / blacklist to allowlist / denylist.
- In training documentation, we'll be more mindful not to imply 'ease'. For example, by avoiding "obviously" and "of course". What's obvious or easy to one person may be neither to someone else.
It's not just tech jargon we're being mindful of, but it's a good start.
No blame, no shame
It's important to say that we're not about to create a finger-wagging atmosphere of "Oooh, watch what you say or you'll be in trouble!". It's a complex subject, without widely agreed guidelines.
So, our approach is to be sensible and sensitive, positive and proactive – encouraging welcoming and considerate use of language. Sometimes we'll get it wrong. Sometimes we'll need to graciously point-out iffy use of language. And we'll need to allow each other time to learn and adapt.
Changing ingrained habits is rarely quick or easy. But we hope that being more mindful and considerate about the words we choose will help us to cultivate greater inclusivity.
Buffer: 'Inclusive Language in Tech'
Thaisa Fernandes:'Inclusive Language Guide for Tech Companies and Startups'
Self Defined: a fulsome, crowdsourced dictionary of non-inclusive words and phrases
Gov.uk: 'Inclusive language: words to use and avoid when writing about disability'
Duncan Nisbet: 'Removing harmful language from my lexicon'
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