Do the words we use exclude people?

Here’s a story that feels embarrassing to share but shouldn’t:

Do the words we use exclude people?
Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

Here’s a story that feels embarrassing to share but shouldn’t:

In 2019, I joined the design research team in the Canadian Digital Service after working in research in the UK government for several years.

In my first week, I joined an “intro to research” session for non-researchers, as a fly on the wall. My manager was leading the session, and he started off by talking about evaluative research and generative research.

As soon as he used these terms, I panicked because I’d never heard of them before.

This instantly activated my imposter syndrome. “I knew it,” the imposter syndrome said. “You don’t know anything and you’re about to be found out!” I slunk lower in my chair and hoped I wouldn’t be called on to give my input.

But as he started to define these terms, I calmed down. I realized I had been doing both of these types of research for many years, in many different contexts. I’d just never called them that, or heard others call them that. To me, they were both just research with different focuses. In the UK government, we might call generative research discovery research, and evaluative research might be called usability testing — but both terms are limiting and they weren’t always appropriate so we just called it research.

As I became more embedded with the team, I learned there were other terms where I didn’t understand the words, even though I was familiar with the implementation: snowball recruitment, intercept research, research rubrics. Coming from the Government Digital Service, where we always used the simplest terms to describe something, it felt like we were overcomplicating things. More crucially, it made me feel like I didn’t belong, even though I did.

I want to be generous with the research team I joined at CDS: they’re a group of lovely and talented researchers with a lot of really impressive experience in this field. I don’t mean to criticize them and I don’t think they intentionally did anything wrong in using these terms that they were familiar with.

But I’m sharing this experience to ask a bigger question on the way we label the things we do: Is there value in giving complex names to things? Is there benefit in using specific words, or can we just call it all research? Does that value outweigh the risks of excluding people with words?

A quick aside to loosely define evaluative research and generative research. Katherine Benjamin gave a very brief but useful definition in a FWD50 talk last week:

  • Evaluative research says, “do you like this pizza I made for you?” (without considering that, maybe they wanted tacos)
  • Generative research says, “are you hungry?”

I love this definition because it’s something anyone can understand. And I think using terms is ok if you make them understandable and accessible to all.

Ok, back to naming

Coming up with complex or customized terms to describe something is, in my mind, a way to legitimize or professionalize something. It’s a way to differentiate it and frame it and make it stick out from other noise. I can see the value of it from that perspective, and I can understand why people use specific terms. Amy Hupe outlines some very good reasons why jargon might actually be useful if applied responsibly.

But here’s a big downside that I see: Complex terms are a form of exclusion. They say to other people, “if you don’t understand this, you don’t belong here.” And exclusion can break down relationships and trust. it creates an “us” vs “them” dynamic.

I’m someone who pushes for clear, simple language and words at any opportunity I get. So much so that I even get annoyed with the term “plain language” because I think it’s jargony and doesn’t resonate with real people outside of government.

I get push back on this all the time:

  • “But this term is an industry standard, so it’s ok” (is it really? How do you know? Have you asked people in the industry if this is the case for them?)
  • “Simple words just can’t convey what I need to say” (like Albert Einstein supposedly said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”)
  • “I‘m not going to to dumb down my message” (As Sarah Winters says, “It’s not dumbing down, it’s opening up”)

I’ve called out people in meetings before who used terms or sentences that weren’t immediately clear to me, and I’m usually ignored or dismissed or (rarely, but it has happened) ridiculed. It goes without saying that this is unacceptable.

Some question to reflect on

Are the words you are using excluding anyone? Does everyone in your audience understand these concepts? How do you know, have you asked them?

  • If anyone in your audience doesn’t understand a term, you either need to define it or simplify it. In my example above, Katherine did a wonderful job of defining the terms in very simple language. On the other hand, the UK government focuses on simplifying the language over using jargon, and it’s really impactful.
  • (Note, if you do choose to simplify your language, be brutal about it. Question every single word.)

Do you really need to use a complex term, or could you just call something what it is or does, in the simplest way possible?

And, crucially, are you creating the space and safety for people to tell you when they don’t understand something? Are you genuinely open to listening to them if they do? Are you willing to change the way to communicate about your work to make it more inclusive and accessible?

(I really hope you are)