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Introducing inclusive language

Whether it is a greeting or how we address an individual, what we say and how we say it can significantly impact our customers and their perception of our business. A few poorly chosen words or an inappropriate greeting can ultimately offend and risk losing loyal customers. The terms and greetings are significant and hold particular importance for individuals transitioning or from other non-traditional gender identities. By making some small, but simple changes can often be the difference between giving a good or great customer experience
  Approach to customers

Over the years, speaking to business owners about customer service, the response will typically be the same. They often claim to have a tried and tested approach in the handling and treatment of their customers. Most business owners will apply their unique style when greeting their customers, which has worked for them over the years. Many believe that their approach is correct and are doing something right if they are still in business. All valid points; however, the article’s purpose is not to say any given approach is wrong. Instead, it is more about improving the customer experience, especially for 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. In reality, there are no laws or regulations explicitly relating to salutations or greetings. The only exception is when a person uses derogatory or discriminatory language.

The world is continually evolving and changing, and businesses must change with the times. Inclusive language should not be seen as negative. Instead, it is about giving excellent customer service and ensuring that every person visiting or interacting with a business feels as welcomed and respected as possible.

  Welcome and Staff training
Article - Introducing inclusive language: engaging with your customers (Person)

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 should 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 taught these greetings and approaches at the start of their careers, as typically, new hires in the service industry will undergo customer services training. Customer service training has been designed to teach the approach and standard expected within any given business, and of course, examples of right and wrong.

The training or corporate manuals are a good starting point; however, they typically offer a one-size-fits-all solution. It is crucial to engage with your customers to understand what they like and dislike when providing excellent customer service. It is surprising how many forget the purpose of any commercial business, which is to give a good service and make a profit. Ultimately, happy customers spend more, remain loyal and keep coming back. To grow and expand, companies must update and adapt their customer manuals to reflect the ever-changing environment and stay relevant and specific to the sector they operate within. Though customer service manuals and training are essential, they should also allow for employees’ personalities to shine through while stopping pitfalls and mistakes from being made. You may ask yourself, why bother? It is a valid question; however, it is proven that your business will benefit and grow when you engage with your customers and understand them better.

  1950s Customer Service

Everyone is so formal and polite when watching movies from the 1950s, especially the old black and white films from the United Kingdom. The young romantic addresses the boss as Sir or the father walking to a hardware store and being greeted as Mr Johnson. Those salutations were the norm during that period, 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 many see as polite and respectful, can also have a very different meaning. My grandparents or parents’ generation like these types of greetings; however, it feels formal, inpersonal and makes me feel old, which is true for many from my generation. If a business I have visited many times before addressed 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 bodies and spending years coming to terms with their true identity. For many of us, it is not easy to fully 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 fill 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 that Karen is married because of her age, so he greeted her as Mrs as she entered the store. However, the moment the clerk addresses Karen in this way, she immediately looks unhappy. The distinction for women regarding married and unmarried, young and old, can also be found in many other languages. For example, in Spanish, married women are referred to as Senora and unmarried women as Senorita, in French, Madam and Mademoiselle. Though some may like being greeted this way, not all women do. Regardless of whether they are married, some prefer Ms as a salutation. Addressing them as anything else could risk causing offence and damaging your relationship 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. Take the time to learn 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 gender or identity, but it goes further. It is not only words but also our actions that influence how our customers perceive us. I recall many years ago watching a documentary focusing on racism. The short clips were about how some businesses were blind to how their actions could be perceived as racist. One owner described how customers had frequently stolen products from his store. He believed the perpetrators were from a specific ethnic group. Due to his beliefs, though he would greet all customers the same way, his eyes would focus on and follow customers from that particular ethnic group. From his perspective, he treated all customers the same, not realising that he was making innocent customers feel uncomfortable by his actions. Even with close scrutiny of his ethnic customers, the irony was that items were still being stolen. He had not correlated that things were being taken by the people 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 closely watched 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 innocent until proven otherwise. If theft is a problem, business owners should install cameras and other anti-theft measures, but certainly not target or focus 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, built 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.

  Using neutral or requested pronouns
Article - Introducing inclusive language: engaging with your customers (Badge)

Using assumptions and generalisations are dangerous, but as you can see, using gender-specific pronouns and salutations can easily offend. There are many ways to greet in a gender-neutral way without losing your 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, 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, and partner rather than husband or wife. By talking and getting 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 clearly stated by the customer.

Businesses are now more aware of how customers think and feel. Many empower customers to share their preferred pronouns and how they like to be addressed. 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 badges.

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

  Unique greetings
Every town, city, and county has 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. You should not change your personality or what makes you unique by becoming more aware of how you communicate with your customers. 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.


Learn all about gender and gender-neutral pronouns in English and seven other languages. Discover more about the history of each of the pronouns, how they are used, and colourful images to communicate your personal pronouns with your colleagues, friends and family
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