Using People-First Language for Dignity and Respect

Academia and business are different worlds, with different goals and day-to-day work. And yet, after working at Harvard for 15 years, I find that a lot of the work that resonates with clients most comes from the academic world. Recently I was reminded of the concept of “people-first language” by a Black student, who posted this on social media: “My African American Studies professor won’t let us refer to slaves as “slaves” but instead “enslaved people” and I think that alone is very powerful. It recognizes that it was our people’s circumstance rather than identity.” Here, the enslavement is an adjective rather than a noun.

In the comments that followed, many people shared similar reflections on the power of words. One noted that their professor had asked to refrain from using the descriptor “slave owner” (which seems to validate the very idea of human ownership in the title), and instead use “slaver” or “human trafficker.” Another noted how powerful it was to hear the term “enslaved people” (rather than “slaves”) used repeatedly on tours in Savannah, GA. Another comment added “homeless is an adjective not a noun.” Referring to “the homeless” as a homogenous group depersonalized the individuality of the homeless woman, homeless child, homeless veteran, etc. In using people-first language, the noun is saved for the person themselves rather than their circumstances.

Similarly, work focused on people with disabilities and/or mental illnesses has transitioned to using people-first language over the last 15 years. It’s worth noting though, that on an individual level, people may prefer to be described identity-first. A Northeastern study found that many people with autism preferred the description ‘autistic person’ to illustrate that autism is not something to be ashamed of. Likewise, an individual may see any facet of their identity for which they face marginalization as the part of their identity which also brings the most pride.

The language we each use holds power. So how can this be helpful in the workplace this week?

This Week’s Tip:

  1. Notice the nouns and adjectives you use this week, and consider using people-first language whenever possible. Use people-first language to describe groups, and pay attention to how members of that group describe themselves. Err on the side of giving more dignity, not less. 
  2. Take some time to look at our Social Identity Wheel activity if you haven’t done so before, or review it if you have. Ask yourself how you would like to be described by others in each identity category. Would you prefer people-first or identity-first language? Is this the same in each category, or does it vary? If it varies, what makes the choice different for you?
  3. Consider using the Social Identity Wheel activity in your team. This is usually best done by an outside facilitator. Contact us if you would like Building Bridges Leadership’s support – we would be happy to help.

Try this out this week and let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you. If you have thoughts or questions, contact us or post in our Facebook group.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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