Adopting Inclusive Language

Using inclusive language can serve an organization and its employees and customers Jonathan Tan


I do not profess to know much about the intricacies of different cultures and languages across the globe, but the Singapore environment in which I was born and raised provided me with plenty of opportunities to interact with people of different races, ethnicities and religious beliefs.

I was born to a Chinese family that migrated to Singapore from China in the 1960s. I had my schooling in Singapore, became a qualified lawyer and started working in private legal practice. Then in 2006, I made a switch to an in-house compliance role with an American multinational corporation (MNC). Today, I lead the legal and compliance department at Manulife Singapore.

The exposure I got from regional positions with the American MNC broadened and deepened my appreciation for diversity in cultures and practices. Even though I had been raised in a social-political environment that emphasized the importance of racial harmony, I was able to learn more about the importance of respecting different cultures when I traveled to different parts of the world on the job.

Why Inclusive Language Is Top-of-Mind

Having a group of friends with various backgrounds and ethnicities gather for a potluck dinner is probably one of the best ways to start appreciating the importance of diversity in a communal context. For example, coconut water is a popular health drink in North America and Britain, but Southeast Asians and Indians adore coconut and extract its milk for cooking. Western-style desserts tend to use desiccated coconut, whereas Asian desserts celebrate freshly grated coconut.

Exchanging recipes and cooking ideas among friends becomes an exchange of cultures. I found this ability to bring people of different backgrounds together both intriguing and harmonious. It got me thinking about how we communicate and the influence language can have on diversity and inclusion.

Respect for others is not a new concept, and progressive efforts in different parts of the world have tried to address different forms of inequality and bias. The heightened awareness about bias and the need for equality undoubtedly have led many countries and MNCs to promote the use of inclusive language. The use of inclusive language by corporations serves both their employees and customers. For employees, company policies that acknowledge and embrace diversity elevate a sense of belonging, which in turn promotes loyalty and commitment. Employees then can be strong brand ambassadors for their employers. On the other hand, customers may be more drawn to supporting companies that promote diversity and inclusion.

Examples of Inclusive Language

Putting aside the complexity of different words possibly meaning different things in different languages, commonly used words in the workplace that are not inclusive include “chairman,” “master document” and “blacklist.” Practical alternatives that are more inclusive are “chair/chairperson,” “primary/reference document” and “deny list,” respectively. No matter the intention behind the use of non-inclusive words, they tend to project a certain bias against gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, race or religion.

Fortunately, such words do not always appear in consumer-facing product-related materials. However, examples used in marketing materials or product brochures could benefit from a more diversified range of characters when explaining the relevance and usefulness of a product.

Common Misconceptions

The inclusive language movement is not about policing how we communicate. It is more about creating awareness and engaging people in conversations about the words we use.

Some colleagues have shared with me that they shy away from public speaking and presentations in fear of saying something offensive. Others have said they fear that an audience would be overzealous about identifying inappropriate words. Additionally, other colleagues have opined that there should be a glossary of non-inclusive words, so employees know what not to say.

Those are valid concerns. But ultimately, the use of inclusive language should be centered on respecting an individual for who that individual is. It is thus highly important to set the tone correctly and reinforce a safe workplace environment. Further, it is not easy to profess to know the meanings and connotations behind every single word. Adopting inclusive language is a journey that welcomes all to partake.

Looking Into the Crystal Ball

The actuarial industry could use its collective voice to promote inclusive language. As it is a cultural mindset shift, the tone from the top will facilitate that drive.

As a wider range of illustrations start appearing in product brochures, consumers hopefully will become more aware of the diversity that exists among us. Just look at what Netflix has done with its program offerings.

Personally, I am excited that we, as an industry, have embarked on this journey. I am confident actuaries will play a significant role in advocating for the use of inclusive language for both our colleagues and customers.

Jonathan Tan is the chief legal & compliance officer of Manulife Singapore.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

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