What is “inclusive language”? A look at words that leverage the diversity that exists in every organization

Are you familiar with “inclusive language”?

Inclusive language refers to a collection of neutral expressions designed not to marginalize any particular group within a diverse society. Such language is closely related to “diversity and inclusion,” terms that we have been encountering lately with increasing frequency.

Diversity, which exists in all organizations, is not limited to differences in nationality and race, but also refers to differences in age, gender, and lifestyle.

In this column, we will introduce inclusive language, words that can facilitate comfortable relationships within a diverse workplace environment.

What is inclusive language?

The Collins Online English Dictionary defines inclusive language in British English as “language that avoids the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people.”1

Also, as noted in the Forbes article “How Inclusive Language Can Help You To Negotiate, Lead And Communicate For Success,”2 “the goal of inclusive language is to create an environment where individuals feel welcomed, cared for, and encouraged to participate in the conversation.”

Accordingly, inclusive language can be a means of expression that makes people of different genders, generations, organizations, and nationalities feel that they and their own personal opinions are welcome and valued in communication, regardless of which community they belong to.

The concept of diversity and inclusion (D&I) is gaining prevalence in society. Here is an example of how one U.S. university defines diversity and inclusion.3

Diversity is the range of human differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.
Inclusion is involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people are recognized. An inclusive university promotes and sustains a sense of belonging; it values and practices respect for the talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and ways of living of its members.

Amid the attention currently being paid to D&I, it will become essential to use more neutral language that avoids discriminatory expressions and employ means such as inclusive language that enable everyone to positively accept diversity and differences, and to convey such an attitude to others.

Consequently, inclusive language represents an important tool for improving inclusion in diverse societies and organizations. Also, when you learn inclusive language, you will be able to unconsciously recognize expressions that could be hurtful to others. In this way, inclusive language is a tool that can be used to improve the way people communicate. In addition, it fosters a positive attitude and awareness toward improving your approach to communication.

Why are inclusion and inclusive language important?

Although the word diversity has gained significant social recognition, the word inclusion is still less well-known. But what is it about inclusion that makes it important?

The reason is, when D&I are expressed together as a set, it is only through inclusion that diversity is able to flourish. Maximizing the abilities of diverse individuals will become a crucial factor for companies to become “winning organizations” in the future. In fact, research shows that companies that realize diversity and inclusion achieve better performance.

According to Deloitte University Press’s Talent matters,4 out of more than 450 companies with revenues in excess of $750 million, the 29 percent that embed D&I awareness in their talent management practices are more likely to rank in the top quartile of high performers across a range of evaluation items compared with the remaining 61 percent. For example, these companies are 1.2 times more likely to meet or exceed their financial targets, 1.4 times more likely to improve processes to maximize efficiency, 1.7 times more likely to innovate, 3.8 times more likely to coach and develop people for better performance, and 3.6 times more likely to manage performance problems, reflecting the ease with which they are often grouped within the top quantile.

Currently, however, compared with diversity, the inclusion aspect of D&I appears to be connected with a negative connotation. McKinsey & Company, in its report “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters,”5 based on a survey of more than 1,000 large companies across 15 countries, analyzed comments on systematic D&I initiatives and inclusion (relating to the three key indicators of equality, openness, and belonging). According to the results, 52 percent of the comments about diversity were positive and 31 percent were negative, but with regard to inclusion, 29 percent were positive and 61 percent were negative. These findings suggest that, while diversity enjoys a growing positive awareness within companies, there are many companies that have not fostered inclusion to the degree that they are able to make the most of it.

Accordingly, in the future, it will be necessary to put greater effort into education that emphsizes the importance of inclusion along with diversity. And one component of that education, inclusive language, will be needed, and therefore important, toward raising positive awareness of inclusion.

Let’s make use of inclusive language!

As mentioned previously, diversity extends beyond simply race and nationality, also encompassing gender, life stage, position in the company, age, and many other categories. Let’s consider some familiar inclusive language while referring to some examples from overseas.


In the United States and Europe, there is a growing trend to move away from masculine titles and occupational names in favor of other wording that does not distinguish between the sexes.

chairman → chairperson / chair
→ workforce
→ police officer

Although the suffix “man” is used to simply convey the meaning of “person,” today the meaning is predominantly masculine. And the opposite is also true, as the names of professions that were once considered exclusive to women now make use of more neutral wording. One example of the latter is flight attendant, a profession that is held by both men and women but, in the past, was predominantly held by women and had been referred to as stewardess. Another example, from Japanese, is the word that had commonly been used for nurse, kangofu, written using the Chinese characters 看護婦, which, literally translated, mean “nursing care woman.” The preferred gender-neutral term, however, is kangoshi , which is written看護師 and means “nursing care specialist.”

The news that Tokyo Disney Resort decided to stop using the English announcement “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” in favor of the neutral “Hello everyone” also became a hot topic of conversation.6

The use of such pronouns as “they/them” has also grown more widespread in accordance with gender diversity, including transgender and non-binary people who do not fit within a binary framework. Some people include their preferred pronouns—such as “she/her,” “he/him,” and “they/them”—in their social media profiles.

In private situations as well, when asking friends if they have a lover, instead of limiting the gender options to either boyfriend or girlfriend, it is preferable to employ a more neutral approach and ask them if they have a “partner” or “significant other.” In today’s world, because marriage and family can assume any of a variety of forms, there will be ever greater opportunities to use the term “partner” instead of “husband” or “wife,”

Organizations and generations

When people from a parent company refer to “people from the ‘subsidiary,’” it may be perceived as somehow demeaning to those from the subsidiary. One possible solution might be to refer to the companies as “group companies.” Although a small difference in word choice, it could provide an opportunity to build better relationships.

Another example concerns the way in which different members within the same workplace refer to one another. Such terms as “boss,” “superior,” “subordinate,” and “underling” reinforce differences in hierarchical status and could have the unintended effect of demotivating some members. Instead, using such terms as team members, coworkers, and colleagues could contribute to creating a more inclusive workplace atmosphere.

Race and nationalities

In July 2020, Apple Inc. removed and replaced such non-inclusive language as blacklist and whitelist from its guidelines and other documents, opting instead for the use of neutral terms, as shown below.7

blacklist → deny list
whitelist → allow list

In Japan, as well, such phrases as “black company” (burakku kigyō) and “make (an issue) ‘white or black’” (shiro-kuro tsukeru, meaning to clarify something as being “right or wrong”) are often used, but it is preferable to avoid using these expressions as they could be misconstrued to mean that black equates to something bad or inferior.

In response to one of our internal questionnaires, we received feedback regarding the use of the terms “Japanese” and “non-Japanese” as to whether such expressions are appropriate for categorizing the nationalities of employees. Even though we are a Japanese company with a multinational workforce that includes a large number of Japanese employees, if there is a need to make such a distinction, the expression “International” would be considered more appropriate than “non-Japanese.”

Inclusive language in action!

Let’s consider how we can actually apply inclusive language. What alternatives can you think of for the following four English examples that are more inclusive?

1. “Guys” has a masculine connotation, often calling to mind an image of men. Can you come up with any more neutral expressions that could be used in situations in which there are people other than men?
2. Please notice the second syllable in mailman.
3. What type of greeting could be used to address someone who follows a religion other than Christianity?
4. This type of expression, which is called “identity-first language,” positions the person’s illness or disability first in the phrase. Can you think of another way to express this?

Let’s take a look at the answers.

1. Although “guys” is also a casual way to refer to women, a more neutral alternative, such as “everyone,” is preferable.
2. Generic titles for professions often convey masculine overtones. Other examples include “fireman” and “salesman,” which can be changed to “firefighter” and “salesperson,” respectively.
3. This revised greeting is a way to wish people of any religion, or no religion, an enjoyable holiday season.
4. This one is a little more challenging than the others. This inclusive-language expression is known as “person-first language.” The key to this approach is to structure the word order so that the person, or people, come first.

In closing

So, what do you think about inclusive language?

Every organization comprises a diverse array of genders, nationalities, careers, and lifestyles. That is why inclusive education and inclusive language is needed not only in organizations with a multinational workforce or companies with global aspirations, but in all organizations and companies.

Within a society that accepts diversity, the topic of inclusive language is one that everyone should take the initiative to learn about.

We can all take this opportunity to learn inclusive language and, in doing so, avoid the risk of unconsciously hurting others toward the creation of an environment in which we can make each other feel comfortable.

We hope that this column will serve as a catalyst for you to check and review the language around you.

Rakuten Group provides part-time internship opportunities for new graduates who have been selected to join the Company with the aim of enabling them to experience what it is like to be a member of society, learning about life in a company and Rakuten Group. In this way, the program allows them to increase their engagement with Rakuten Group, reducing the culture gap encountered when transitioning from student life to working life.

Ruri Yoshida, who is currently interning at the Rakuten People & Culture Lab, took the lead in putting together today’s column on inclusive language.

Ruri spent her university life in the United States, where she became aware that she was a minority in the country based on the language that she encountered. It was during this time that she became aware of, and sensitive to, language. Some casually used expressions shocked her, others delighted her. It was through this experience that she came to appreciate the power that language wields.

Cited references

1. Collins Online English Dictionary, definition of “inclusive language”
(As of November 12, 2021)
2. Forbes, How Inclusive Language Can Help You To Negotiate, Lead And Communicate For Success
(As of November 12, 2021)
3. Ferris State University, definitions of “diversity” and “inclusion”
(As of November 12, 2021)
4. Deloitte University Press, Talent matters
(As of November 12, 2021)
5. McKinsey & Company, Diversity wins: How inclusion matters
(As of November 12, 2021)
6. Nikkei, “Tokyo Disney changes some of its park announcements to reflect diversity” (Japanese), March 26, 2021
(As of November 12, 2021)
7. Apple Developer site, Updates to coding terminology, July 16, 2020
(As of November 12, 2021)