Robin Cannon's Blog

Microaggressions - Why Inclusive Language is Important

April 12, 2019

I was watching some of the tweets about the JS Heroes conference over the last couple of days. A friend shared a joke that had been made during a session;

What, you can’t type with one hand?

It’s also Limb Different Awareness Month, and my wife, @kimosabeHKS, is limb different. She can only type with one hand. A “ho ho, imagine if you could only type with one hand, how sucky” comment wouldn’t be so fun for her.

I didn’t have the full context of the joke during the session. I doubt there was any malice in it. My friend deleted their tweet after I messaged them and raised by concern. But it’s a demonstration of how easy it can be to exclude an audience through a simple comment.

Microaggressions are real

Thanks, guys!

Last week I was invited to do some Q&A on the Carbon Design System to a groups of designers. It was a good call, I thought. I hope it was helpful. When I was wrapping up my part of the call and signing off, I said “thanks, guys” before I hung up.

And the moment I hung up I felt dumb. The participants of that call weren’t all men. Stopping using the term “guys” in mixed gender groups is something I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid. My guess is that most of the people on the call thought nothing of it. But the onus isn’t on other people to be bothered by language I use. The onus on me is to make sure my language is inclusive.

And even if someone isn’t offended at the exact moment of a comment like that, there’s a longer-term impact. Imagine I didn’t consider myself a guy, but everyone around me uses the term to describe all their colleagues. I might start to think that this was a job where being a guy is important. So maybe it’s not the best place for me.

I’m not sure I like the term “microaggression”. It assigns too much motive (“aggression”), while also trivializing the impact (“micro”). Rather than “micro”, I think it’s about an incremental impact. And the underlying concept is important. That unintentional comments can still be excluding or hurtful. But, beyond that, this also includes comments that even the majority might consider innocent. And comments that in isolation have minimal impact, but might be repeated regularly over time.

Beware of industry terms, too

Hey, everyone, it’s time for our daily stand up

This is one that a former colleague on IBM Cloud mentioned to me one day. Development teams practising any implementation of Agile, however flawed, almost always have some kind of regular check in session. And it’s almost always called a stand up.

Would you feel great if you were a wheelchair user being asked to come and “stand up” on a daily basis? I don’t know. But I do know there’s no real reason for that regular check in to be called a stand up. I assume it’s just because the first team that codified the term stood up for it, and my guess is that that team didn’t include a wheelchair user.

It’s more than just diversity related language

Microaggressions are dangerous because they incrementally reinforce bias and structural inequalities. A lot of that will related to existing inequalities that undermine diversity. But I think there’s another aspect to microaggressions, too.

We need to put more resources on this project

That sentence just means put more people on the project. Why don’t we call people people, then? A lot of corporate language is like this. Deliberately or otherwise, it’s dehumanizing. And I think it’s a broadly applied microaggression that’s prevalent in business.

Be conscious, be deliberate, and acknowledge mistakes

I am not perfect about this, as I highlighted above. And some of these distinctions are subtle. We can make mistakes. But there are two things than I think anyone can, and should, do.

  1. Be conscious of language use. Be deliberate about trying to talk in an inclusive way.
  2. When you make mistakes, which you will, acknowledge, apologize, and learn from them.

This applies as much to life as to work. There are a lot of words out there, so let’s make the effort to use the ones that make feel people included, not excluded.


Robin Cannon

A Brit in Texas. I manage the dev team for IBM's Carbon Design System.
My blog for work, tech, and industry related musings. Thoughts my own.
@shinytoyrobots on Twitter