Working within a client support organization, you may often come across examples of exclusive language being used that can leave customers confused and, sometimes, even expecting the opposite of what you meant.
Revealing the language we often forget – geographical & cultural exclusion and the use of jargon – with examples of where they’ve been used in real-life situations, this post will guide you through how easy it is to make these mistakes and what we can do to correct this.
But what do we mean by “inclusive language”?
Inclusion nounCambridge Dictionary
The act of including someone or something as part of a group, list, etc., or a person or thing that is included
I doubt that definition comes as a surprise to anyone, and when we’re talking about language, we are, of course, talking about using it in a way that doesn’t exclude people. And, yet, many people think of inclusion in terms to gender, religion and race. But there are two areas, often used within support, that are often forgotten…
Geography & Culture
Support will often involve interacting with customers from potentially anywhere in the world and, yet, cultural and geographical specific references become second-nature for us to use.
In 2017, I sat down to hear a US speaker talk about inclusivity to a room of people who’d come from around the globe. And, early on, she made a joke. Some people in the room laughed. Many didn’t. Not because the joke was lame, but because it was referencing US sport. Most of the people in the room simply didn’t get it and, why would they? Apart from it only being relevant to those who like sport, outside of the US it was even less likely you’d have understood it.
I came across something similar in a book that I read, again on the subject of inclusivity…
Aimee Gonzalez-Cameron, a software engineer at Uber, has felt this way ever since she sat down to take the SAT.Technically Wrong, Sara Wachter-Boettcher
Now, what’s important here is to understand how important an SAT test is because, without knowing that, the context being made within the book is lost. In the US, the SAT test is an exam critical to getting into college (or, more rather, getting onto the college course that you want). But this is US specific. Outside, many people won’t know what this is so the context will be lost. Worst still, in the UK we have an exam named the SATs – these are given to children at around the age of 10 to determine how well their education is going. Their significance is much, much less and if a reader confused the US SAT with UK SATs, then this mis-match with expectations will be so much worse.
So, here we have two inclusion experts falling foul of geographic exclusion in their language.
Don’t get me wrong, geographical references made to the right audience can absolutely delight customers – if I know someone is in the UK, a mention of the weather or something similar (don’t stray into anything political) can really make everything feel more friendly. But, only if you know for sure.
Timezones is another area. I’m part of the hiring team at Automattic and will often hold text-based interviews with applicants. They may be in the US and, for them, the interview will be in the morning but, for me, it’s late afternoon. It’s all done with Slack, via a shared channel that we set up in advance. At any point they can use this, look at my profile and see my timezone. Or just research me more generally – they’ll know my name. Yet, 9 times out of 10, I am greeted with “Good morning” by the applicant. Now, to be clear, I don’t mark anyone down for this but on the rare occasion they say “Good afternoon”, it will make me smile and they will get a mental green tick. The correct answer here is – if you don’t know, don’t guess.
When I had my trial for Automattic I was working as a Happiness Engineer for WordPress.com. When providing chat support, my Amazon Dot never got so much use.
Hmm, this person is from Cape Town.
“Alexa, what’s the time in Cape Town?”
Good afternoon. How can I help you today?
That timezone specific greeting makes a difference. Get it wrong, though, and it grates horribly.
But I’m not talking about hiding your geographical differences – I still write in British English, but nobody is likely to be confused by me, say, writing “colour” instead of “color”. But if I make a reference to the football match the previous night, that’s likely to be different. I intentionally retain my “Britishness”, as it’s part of my character, but you must tread carefully when making specific references to something that may be geographical or culturally specific – even an expression may fall foul (and “fall foul” may be an example – I honestly don’t know if that expression would be known outside of the UK).
IT is so full of jargon, it’s painful. But I’m not here to tell you not to use it – if you have a technically-savvy customer and you’re spelling out the answer in simple language, they’ll soon get frustrated.
But, like so many things, you need to target accordingly, based on what knowledge you have. At my previous employer, I was often wheeled out by the IT department to explain things to senior management, as I had a knack of translating “jargon to English”.
In VIP, our customers are usually developers, so it’s right to pitch at a high level. On WordPress.com, that’s likely to vary. But the customer’s opening query can help cast light onto what their technical level may be. And, if all else fails, I always pitch somewhere in the middle and with a (non-condescending) check to make sure they understand.
So, let’s say a (non VIP) customer asks about how to assign categories to a post. You probably wouldn’t want to step-by-step, explain how they sign in, pull up a post and then, with screenshots, show them where the category section is. Neither would you probably say “it’s a meta box on the editor screen”. You’d probably explain where it was, when editing a post, in relation to the editor window. And maybe a single screenshot showing it. Finish that off with a “If you need any further assistance with this, please let me know”. Neither the technical user nor the absolute beginner is likely to take issue at this as a response, although the latter may reply back asking for further clarification, if they need it.