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Introducing inclusive language

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Inclusive Language

Whether it is a greeting, or how we address an individual, what we say and how we say it can have a significant impact on our customers and their perception of our business. A few poorly chosen words or an inappropriate greeting can offend and ultimately result in businesses losing customers. By making a number of small, but simple changes can often be the difference between giving a good or great customer experience


Over the years, speaking to business owners about customer service, the response will typically be the same, that they have a tried and tested approach when it comes to their own customers. Typically, business owners will apply their own unique style when greeting their customers, which has worked for them over the years and is further validated in their minds that they are doing something right, if they are still in business. All valid points, however, the purpose of the article is not to say any given approach is wrong. Instead, it is more about thinking of ways to enhance the customer experience, especially when it comes to new or potential customers. Inclusive language is more than just gender or identity related but also applies to race, age, social-economic, education, colloquialisms and many other factors. It is also a generational thing; for example, a woman born in the 1920s would likely be offended, if by entering a store was not addressed as ‘ma’am’ by the clerk. Though there are no laws or regulations explicitly relating to salutations or greetings; the only exception is when a person uses derogatory or discriminatory language, which is illegal in many countries. The world is continually evolving and changing, and for businesses, they must change with the times. Inclusive language should not be seen as negative, but instead, it is about giving excellent customer service and ensuring that every person visiting a business feels as welcomed as possible.

Inclusive Language - Your Name
Welcome and Staff Training

When you answer the telephone or a customer walks into your business, how do you greet them? If you know their name, you might address them directly, or for older customers, as a sign of respect, you might address them as Mr or Mrs, followed by their surname. What would you do if you do not know their name? Then you might say Sir or Ma’am. Though many will see these types of greetings as polite and courteous and for the most, they are; however, not everyone feels this way. Many are often being taught these types of greetings and approaches at the start of their working lives or careers, as typically new hires in the service industry will undergoing some form of customer services training. Customer service training that is has been designed to teach the approach and standard expected within any given business, and of course, examples of what is right and what is wrong.

The training or even corporate manuals are a good starting point; however, they offer a one-size-fits-all solution. To truly provide good customer service, it is crucial to engage with your customers to understand what they like and also what they do not like. It is surprising how many forget the purpose of any commercial business, which should be to provide a good service and to ultimately make a profit. Remembering the fact that happy customers spend more, remain loyal and keep coming back. For businesses, they must update and adapt their customer manuals to ensure they reflect the ever-changing environment and stay relevant and specific to the sector in which they operate. Though customer service manuals and training are essential, they should also allow for employees’ personalities to shine through, but at the same time stopping pitfalls and mistakes from being made. You may ask yourself, why bother? It is a valid question; however, it is proven that when you engage with your customers and understand them better, your business will benefit and grow.

1950s Customer Service

Watching movies from the 1950s, especially the old black and white films from the United Kingdom, everyone is so formal and polite. The young romantic addressing the boss as Sir or the father walking to a hardware store and being greeted as Mr Johnson. During that period, those types of salutations were the norm and the expected standard applied. So, let us now look at these types of greetings and how they can be interpreted in modern times.

Good day Sir or Ma’am?
A greeting, which is seen by many as polite and respectful, can also have a very different meaning. My grandparents or parents’ generation like these types of greetings; however, for me and many from my generation, it feels formal and personally makes me feel old. If it is a business that I have visited many times before, by addressing me as Sir, I would likely feel as though they were lazy by not bothering to learn more about me. Calling someone who is young or in denial about their age, Sir or Ma’am feels formal and outdated.

The greeting is also gender-specific, with the employee determining a customer’s gender or assumptions around how they identify, which is especially important when dealing with many from the LGBTQ+ community. Many within the community often spend a lifetime feeling different, trapped in their own bodies and spending years coming to terms with their true identity. For many of us, it is not easy to comprehend what that must be like or what they are going through. Now consider a person who has spent years changing their outward appearance to reflect how they feel inside. They walk into the store, and the clerk addresses them as Sir, even though they identify as female. It is not about changing your views or beliefs, just being mindful of someone else’s feelings.

Good afternoon Mrs Johnson
Another polite and courteous greeting, but also thwart with problems. The danger is using assumption, which occurs when people assume when filling in the gaps. Let’s say that there is a customer called Karen Johnson, who is a middle-aged woman. Karen walks into the store, and the clerk politely greets her as Mrs Johnson.

Though there is only one way to address men, using the salutation Mr, there are three separate ways to address women, Ms, Miss and Mrs. The clerk has assumed because of her aged that Karen is married and that is why he greeted her as Mrs, however the moment the clerk addresses Karen in this way, she immediately looks unhappy. The distinction for women with regards to married and unmarried, young and old can also be found in many other languages. For example, in Spanish, married woman are referred to as Senora and unmarried woman as Senorita, in French, Madam and Mademoiselle. Though some may like being greeted in this way, not all women do. Regardless of whether they are married or not, some preferring Ms and by addressing them as anything else could risk causing offence and damaging the relationship you have with your customer.

Regardless of the salutation, it ultimately comes down to preference, some opting and preferring to be addressed as Sir or Ma’am, while others prefer a more personalised greeting. With new customers, it is essential to remain as neutral as possible and once the relationship is established, taking the time to find out more about your customer and how they like to be addressed.

Not just about gender or identity

Many believe inclusive language is limited only to only gender or identity, but it goes much further. It is not only words but also our actions that influence the way our customers perceive us. I recall many years ago watching a documentary focusing on racism; the short clips were about how some businesses are blind to how their actions could be perceived as racist. One owner described how customers had frequently stolen products from his store, and he believed the perpetrators were from certain ethnic groups. Due to his beliefs, though he would greet all customers the same way, his eyes would focus in on and follow customers from specific ethnic groups. From his perspective, he was treating all customers the same, not realising that he was making innocent customers feel uncomfortable by his actions. The irony was that even with close scrutiny of his ethnic customers, items were still being stolen, and he had not correlated that items were being taken by the people that he was not watching.

For many of us, it is hard to imagine what that must be like, innocently walking into a store to buy an item and being watched closely while we browse. The whole time the store owner is focused on us, the real crimes are being committed undetected because their attention is elsewhere. The mantra should always be the same; everyone should be treated as innocent until proven otherwise. If theft is a problem, then business owners should install cameras and other anti-theft measures, but certainly not target or focus in on specific groups or individuals. Empathy is also essential, so ask yourself, how would you feel in that situation?

Race, religion, age, even weight are all factors that should be considered, especially in any customer training provided. Often innocent mistakes can be made all because of presumption.

Imagine a clothing store, a large build woman walks in and asks the clerk where the women’s tops are located. The clerk replies "We keep our larger sized tops over in that section". You would likely have never made that assumption; however, can you say that is true for all your employees? What about new hires? To presume is a dangerous thing, what if that customer was buying a top for a friend or just did not like being reminded how the world sees them. By just rephrasing their reply to “We have a range of tops, located here and here”, the situation could have been easily avoided.

Inclusive Language - Name Badge
Using neutral or requested pronouns

Using assumptions and generalisations are dangerous, but as you can see, by using gender-specific pronouns and salutations can easily offend. There are many ways to greet in a gender-neutral way, without losing your own style or tone. An example is the old Scottish term which is now being used within the deep south of the USA and that term is ‘Y’all’. The term is surprising gender-neutral as it stands for you all, with no gender or pronouns applied, however today, it likely only works in certain parts of the USA. When it comes to greetings if in doubt, use you rather than he or she, partner rather than husband or wife. By talking and taking the time to get to know your customers, they will quickly inform you of their preferences, typically throwing in terms like wife, husband or partner during the conversation. Never assume, and only use non-generic terms unless they have been clearly stated.

Businesses are now more aware of how customers think and feel, and many are empowering customers to share how they like to be addressed and their preferred pronouns. Whether it is He, She, Zie, Sie, Ey, Ve Tey, E, Per or They, if you promote this approach, all employees must be trained and use the requested customer pronouns. To help encourage your customers to share their pronouns, you could start by including your staff’s preferred pronouns via their employee badge.

Avoiding pronouns and genders all together is another approach. Saying ‘Good morning, how may I help you? Or greet with ‘Hello, my name is Karen; may I ask your name? Are simply ways to avoid those pitfalls.

Every town, city and county have their unique customs and ways of greeting each other, and there is no right or wrong way, as long as it does not offend. Regardless of the approach, it is essential always to remain mindful of people’s feelings and respectful of how they choose to live their lives. Becoming more aware of how you communicate with your customers should not mean you have to change your personality or what makes you, you. It is more about tweaking your approach to reflect changes in society.

Whether a traditional or modern business, through listening to and engaging with your customers, evolving and adapting your approach to an ever-changing environment, you will see your business go from good to great in the eyes of your customers.

Click here to learn more about personal pronouns on Gayther

Learn more about the author
Peter is a published author, experienced and highly skilled change & strategy consultant in the European Financial Services industry. Peter has a diverse skillset acquired over 20 years, which includes a substantial range of delivery and analytical skills, coupled with a proven track record in driving and delivering multi-million-dollar business and technical projects


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