Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Model inclusive language


As instructors, you can have a great impact on the classroom climate through the very language you use. Yet it can be hard to recognize in one’s own speech that some of the most basic idioms and examples are often not inclusive, for they are actually very specific to one group in society (e.g. men/women, Christians, whites, heterosexuals, etc.). This tendency can inadvertently marginalize minority groups. For instance, research has shown that using gender-exclusive language (e.g., using he to indicate he or she) in professional settings affects women’s sense of belonging and lowers motivation (Stout and Dasgupta, 2011; Sczesny, Formanowicz, & Moser, 2016).

  • Ask your students what their preferred pronouns are and follow-up by using the correct ones identified by your students.
    • For instance, at the beginning of the semester, ask everyone a series of questions (maybe including their majors), including one “What should I call you? What is your preferred pronoun?”
  • Use language that is truly generic:
    • When addressing mixed gender groups: “Hey folks/all/everyone” instead of “Hey guys.”
    • Spouse/significant other instead of husband/wife (particularly if you do not know someone’s sexual orientation)
    • Winter/holiday break instead of Christmas Break.
    • House of worship instead of church.
  • When you use American idioms, explain them for the benefit of non-native English speakers. This is particularly important when writing exam prompts as some students will lose time trying to decipher language rather than using that time to answer the question.
  • Be careful about overgeneralizing your students’ experiences. It is natural to assume that experiences you have had (e.g. living in a house, flying on an airplane, taking family vacations) are shared by others, but when that is not the case, it can marginalize students whose experiences differ.
    • Use language to acknowledge different lived experiences: “For those of you who have studied abroad/seen Field of Dreams/been on a ferry...”

References:

Sczesny, S., Formanowicz, M., & Moser, F. (2016). Can gender-fair language reduce gender stereotyping and discrimination? Frontiers in psychology, 7.

Stout, J. G., & Dasgupta, N. (2011). When he doesn’t mean you: Gender-exclusive language as ostracism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6), 757-769.


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