Considering inclusive language, Vol. 1 – Approaching from an academic perspective

Inclusive language refers to a collection of neutral expressions designed not to marginalize any particular group within a diverse society.

In a previous column, we raised the need for efforts aimed at promoting inclusive language. The number of views that article received exceeded our expectations, an indication of the degree of attention this topic is receiving in the field of diversity and inclusion in Japan.

In this column, to help readers better understand inclusive language, we will approach it from the perspectives of sociolinguistics and national culture.

Sociolinguistics and inclusive language

In order to understand inclusive language’s position as a language, let’s first focus our attention on linguistics and, within linguistics, sociolinguistics, which studies the relationship between language and society.

According to the website of Senshu University’s Department of Japanese Language and Linguistics, within the School of International Communication, sociolinguistics is a discipline that “views language through society,” and sociolinguistics is the study of the role of language in society and analyzes the relationship between language and society. The site also states that language changes, that such changes are often caused by social conditions, and that “language reflects society.”1

Additionally, some researchers define sociolinguistics as “the study of language in relation to such social factors as social class, educational level and type of education, age, gender, and race.” (Kavanagh, 2009).

In a column by Seijo University Associate Professor Yumiko Mizusawa, she writes, “Within the field of sociolinguistics, the focus of study is on familiar language. Therefore, it is important to pay close attention and listen to the linguistic phenomena that occur around us every day.”2

As an example of sociolinguistics that appeared in the same column, Mizusawa specifically mentioned “politically correct (PC) terms” that make no distinction between gender, race, religion, or physical characteristics.2 Such expressions are highly compatible with the content we introduced in this earlier column.

As we can see, sociolinguistics is a discipline that examines language, which reflects our everyday lives and culture, and changes in accordance with the times and the environment, from the perspective of its relationship with society. And among the research topics within the field are inclusive language and PC terms, which appear to have emerged as a reflection of such social changes as globalization and the inclusion of diversity.

Additionally, according to the same column by Mizusawa, “PC terms represent language that puts the speaker in the other person’s shoes so as not to make the other person feel uncomfortable.”2 When considered in conjunction with the previously mentioned statement that “it is important to pay close attention and listen to the linguistic phenomena that occur around us every day,” we can once again see how PC terms and inclusive language are closely related to “microaggressions,” which we introduced in this column.

Accordingly, it would appear that the key to engaging in inclusive communication within organizations lies in (1) employing neutral expressions, (2) being considerate so as not to make other people feel uncomfortable, and (3) being sensitive to such matters.

National culture and inclusive language

If language reflects the cultural background of the society in which it is used, then businesspeople who were born and raised in Japan may want to be aware of the characteristics of their country’s national culture in order to communicate more inclusively in a globalized business environment.

In her book The Culture Map, Erin Myer of INSEAD Business School discusses how behavior differs due to differences in national culture. In this column, among the indicators that measure differences in national culture, we focus on the Egalitarian-Hierarchical axis.

In her book, Meyer describes egalitarian cultures as having low power disparity, the distance between bosses and subordinates is close, the ideal boss is an equal who can build consensus among people, organizations are flat, and communication often transcends rank.

Hierarchical cultures, on the other hand, are described as having a high power disparity, the distance between bosses and subordinates is great, the ideal boss is a strong leader who leads from the front lines, titles are important, the organization is multi-layered and fixed, and communication often takes place in accordance with the pecking order.

Looking at the distribution of Egalitarian-Hierarchical cultures in different countries, Japan seems to be located in a cultural zone that tends to have strong hierarchical tendencies. Due to its location within such a cultural zone, the language used in organizations in Japan may include expressions that contain hierarchical nuances. As a result, it is easy to imagine how a subordinate from an egalitarian culture, for example, might perceive what his or her Japanese supervisor says as oppressive, creating feelings of discomfort.

As the importance of diversity and inclusion increases, it might be a good idea to take another look at the words and phrases we use on a daily basis regarding people and organizations to see whether they are inclusive and, particularly in the case of the Japanese, whether any of them may be strongly influenced by the country’s hierarchical culture.

In the next column, we will focus on the hierarchical aspect of words and phrases related to people and organizations, consider how to convert such nuances into inclusive language, and present specific examples and tips.

We would like to thank Associate Professor Yumiko Mizusawa of Seijo University’s Faculty of Arts and Literature for sharing her insights on sociolinguistics prior to the writing of this article.

Works cited:

Kavanaugh, B. (2009). Sociolinguistics: The mechanisms and perspectives of language use within societies. J.Aomori Univ. Health Welf. 10(2), 225–230.

Meyer, E. (2014). The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. NY: PublicAffairs.

Reference links

1 Senshu University, School of International Communication, Department of Japanese Language and Linguistics, Sociolinguistics  (in Japanese) (referenced on August 31, 2022)

2 “Considering the Diversity of Language: From the Perspective of Sociolinguistics,” Seijo Salon, Seijo University (in Japanese) (referenced on August 31, 2022)