Language Awareness: Valuing and embracing the diversity of language
Language awareness in the sense of valuing and embracing the diversity of language is one out of five trends identified by the Communications Trend Radar 2022. Higher expectations regarding diversity and inclusion as well as cultural differences require a more conscious, a more sensitive use of language. Communication managers will have to meet the expectations of different stakeholders and cultures while keeping in mind content and usability.
Hot discussions about language use
In recent years, debates about politically correct language (avoid offending specific groups of people) and gender-sensitive language (including different genders and weakening biases) have gathered a lot of attention. Strong emotions, polarization, and stigmatization dominate these debates, especially in the German-speaking countries but also in the US. Often the focus of the discussion shifts from the actual content to wording and phrasing – or from what’s said to how it’s said. This makes the topic feel exhausting and confusing for most people. And it requires corporations to take a (potentially controversial) stand on language use.
What we understand by language awareness
Language awareness as proposed by the Communications Trend Radar is not about criticizing language use. It’s about how we as communicators can anticipate language diversity within our organization and use it to our advantage. It’s also about addressing internal and external stakeholders according to their expectations, which can differ across countries or continents. There should be no right or wrong, good or bad, but an acceptance of linguistic diversity. Or as Professor Ansgar Zerfass from Leipzig University puts it:
“ The trend of language awareness as we see it goes far beyond the use of gender-sensitive language.” (Prof. Ansgar Zerfass)
A lack of guidance
These days, discussions about language are often based on personal opinions rather than facts. This is partly because little empirical knowledge is available on the expectations of specific audiences and stakeholders. A representative survey in Germany shows that the topic is considered black or white: A few supporters of gender-sensitive language (25%) are opposed by a large number of opponents (71%). Neutral voices are nearly missing. (Figures by ZDF Politbarometer, July 2021)
On the contrary, experiments on the (dis)advantages of gender-inclusive language confirm that using a gender-fair language (e.g. when describing professionals) leads to a higher proportion of respondents realizing that the person is a woman (Kollmayer et al., 2018). Making the situation even more difficult for international organizations is the fact that the 6,500 or more languages worldwide vary significantly in terms of gender-neutrality.
Recommendations for communication leaders and professionals
To avoid decisions based on gut feelings or influenced by emotional debates, the research team of the Communications Trend Radar outlined the following recommendations:
- Take a stance based on empirical insights: Communicators should detach themselves from emotions and personal opinions and weigh up logical arguments. This isn’t a simple undertaking because the subject matter is confusing, with arguments ranging from equality to censorship. What’s more, content and usability play a role and should also be taken into consideration.
- Listen to your stakeholders: Monitoring and listening have been an integral part of corporate communications for years. In times of fundamental debates about language, however, it’s even more important to listen carefully to your stakeholders and audiences. Only those who know their target groups also understand how to address them. Many companies have initiated dialogue formats, for example, with employees to better understand their expectations. In the end, corporate language guidelines don’t have to be a one-size-fits-all solution, but should respect cultural differences.
- Authenticity is key: Companies should carefully determine their standpoint on language use and stand up for the decision they have made. An organization’s official position must be credible and authentic and should be broadly supported by the entire organization, especially the top management. Action must follow words. Nevertheless, communication managers should be prepared for critical counter-voices.
- Persevere and be patient: If companies want to change their language use, they should plan for the long haul. Language is just one piece in the puzzle of building mutual trust, addressing anti-discrimination, and promoting diversity and inclusion. Especially diversity and inclusion are a marathon rather than a sprint. Quick reactions and interventions may do more to harm credibility than they do to promote awareness.
About the study
For the second time the Academic Society for Management & Communication presented the Communications Trend Radar – an interdisciplinary and scientific study on the most important trends that will influence communication management in the near future.
The study analyzes changes in the areas of society, management, and technology. For 2022, the research teams proposes the trends Language Awareness, Closed Communication, Gigification, Synthetic Media, and Cybersecurity.
These trends were selected and scored on a scientifically sound basis, developed by a research team at Leipzig University and the University of Potsdam (led by Professors Stefan Stieglitz from Business Information Systems, and Ansgar Zerfass from Communication Management). More than 100 sources from research and practice were included. Selected aspects will be further researched in in-depth projects. The study aims to support communication managers in setting the course and guide decisions.