In recent years, new debates have emerged around language. Two popular examples are political correctness and gender-sensitive language. Not only linguists and professional communicators in journalism and corporate communications, but also amateur language critics are getting in on the debate. Quite 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.
On this page:
- What does language awareness mean?
- Why do such fundamental debates arise around language awareness?
- What can those responsible for communication contribute to improve language awareness?
What does language awareness mean?
Language awareness is not about criticizing language use, but about accepting language diversity, dealing sensitively with language and creating interest in it. The Association for Language Awareness defines language awareness as “explicit knowledge about language, and conscious perception and sensitivity in language learning, language teaching and language use” (Figueras, 2017, p. 186).
Why do such fundamental debates arise around language awareness?
- Broad rejection of language change: Over 70% of Germans are against gender-inclusive language (Polit barometer, a program on Germany’s ZDF TV channel). There is an accompanying fear of forced language change. Besides that, the amateur language critics who try to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” dominate the debate, while “real” experts (linguists and language historians) are hardly heard and not credited for their expertise.
- The degree of stigmatization: Often, people who hold a certain attitude, e. g. for or against gender-neutral language, are attributed certain political standpoints. The focus of the discussion about language diversity then gets lost.
- The lack of guidance: Discussions about language are often based on personal opinions rather than facts. Presumably, this is partly because no long-term studies to provide guidance are available. Making the situation even more difficult is the fact that the 6,500 or more language worldwide vary significantly. For example, Finnish and Chinese are considered gender-neutral language. The lack of international orientation is highlighted by the diverging requirements among users, technology, and the law.
“Moving from current language topics like political correctness and gender sensitivity to diversity and inclusion is a big issue. We’ve already taken some steps by raising awareness and talking to groups. We still don’t know enough about how people – even our own employees – want to be addressed.”
Anke Schmidt, Vice President Corporate Communications & Government Relations, Beiersdorf
The nature of linguistic criticism:
Language researchers have analyzed the nature of linguistic criticism presented in debates about political correctness and gender-sensitive language. In the current debate, criticism can be divided into three types:
Recommendations for communication experts
What can those responsible for communication contribute to improve language awareness, i.e., by raising consciousness and acceptance of linguistic diversity?
1. Take a stance based on empirical insights.
- Detach yourself from emotions and personal opinions. Avoid engaging in debates about principles, but instead collect and weigh up logical arguments. Focus on the content and usability of language; this often gets lost in emotional debates.
2. Listen to your stakeholders.
- Focus on monitoring and listening: What drives individual groups? How do my employees feel about inclusive language? Are there differences between journalists and customers in terms of preferences? Many companies initiate dialogue, for example, in the form of employee surveys or moderated discussion forums on the intranet.
- Accept that there is no one-fits-all solution: Instead of corporate language guidelines for all kinds of internal and external communications, organizations should be able to adapt language to cultural differences.
3. Persevere and be patient.
- Quick reactions and interventions may do more to harm credibility than they do to promote awareness. Be prepared for critical counter-voices. Companies should carefully determine their standpoint and stand up for the decision they have made.
Key Facts about the 5 trends
- Language Anwareness: Linguistic diversity such as gender sensitivity is increasingly discussed in society today. This shifts the focus of discussions from the actual content to the choice of words and phrasing. Communication managers will have to meet the expectations of different stakeholders and cultures while keeping in mind content and usability.
- Closed Communication: The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the retreat into the private sphere. Private messaging services like Telegram, Signal and Threema are popular examples of closed communication using partly hidden platforms. As a result, media use is shifting from public to private media environments. For communicators, more and more interactions between stakeholders are becoming invisible.
- Gigification: The division of projects and large tasks into "gigs" works for companies in the gig economy such as Uber, Lieferando or Fiverr. The demand for gigs is rapidly increasing due to remote work, digital nomadism, and globalization. Corporate communications can outsource various tasks as gigs; for example, creative tasks, text layout, presentation design, and software development can already be performed as gigs.
- Synthetic Media is no longer a futuristic scenario. The underlying technology has recently matured to a level where the content produced appears highly realistic. It will become relevant for corporate communications as organizations can use e. g. avatars to revive the own history or to enhance the customer experience. How can this risky technology be useful for communications?
- Cybersecurity: The number of Cyberattacks is rising rapidly every year. Cyberattacks are “the new normal” and can cause substantial financial and reputational damage. Organizations become more vulnerable due to the increased digitalization or the introduction of unapproved software in the workplace. What can communications leader do, to prepare the organization against cyberattacks?
- Sources & screening: First, information sources which provide relevant insights into the professional discourse in the areas of management, technology, and society were monitored and screened. These sources primarily include recent publications from scientific journals and conferences in the respective domains, but also selected newspapers (e.g., Economist Science and Technology), magazines (e.g., Harvard Business Review, Wired), social news sites (e.g., Reddit Science), blogs and websites (e.g., ReadWrite, The Next Web), whitepapers, and corporate trend reports.
- Trend profiles: Each potential trend was systematically documented in a trend profile consisting of a brief description and several criteria estimating the trend’s relevance to corporate communications. Specifically, the research team assessed the impact of the trend on the corporate communications function, processes and management.
- Scoring: Based on the criteria detailed in the trend profiles, a scoring method was developed that was used to rate each of the trends.
- Selection: These trends were first discussed among the Communications Trend Radar team during a workshop. Each team member then voted individually for the top trends in the areas of management, technology, and society. We proposed five trends for 2022 (depicted below) based on the outcome of this process.
- Reflection: These trends were examined further and later discussed with communication leaders during an online workshop in November 2021.
- Report: All trends were analyzed and described in more detail in our publication - the Communications Trend Radar.
The Communications Trend Radar 2022 project was conducted by a research team of the Leipzig and the University of Duisburg-Essen.
from left to right:
- Stefan Stieglitz is Professor for Digital Communication and Transformation Professional at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.
- Daniel Ziegele, M.A. is a research associate at the Institute for Communication and Media Studies at Leipzig University, Germany.
- Sünje Clausen, M.Sc. is a research associate at the chair of Digital Communication and Transformation at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.
- Ansgar Zerfass is Professor and Chair of Strategic Communication at the Institute for Communication and Media Studies at Leipzig University, Germany.