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You can change attitudes, one word at a time

April 9, 2021

One word. That’s all it was. One small word, but a word I’d seen used by those working for my main client a couple of times in the past few weeks (I’ve been working for them for 13+ years, and this was the first I’d seen the word in this context). To me, this word was SO out of context in how they’d used it that I wondered where it came from and why it was used in that way, and why it was starting to proliferate.

The easy thing would be to say nothing, do nothing, and let it slide on by. But I couldn’t, because that one word held a lot of very negative meaning in other contexts, a meaning that was offensive to many Australians and made others, like me, uncomfortable.

In other contexts, it’s a perfectly fine word, but it was out of place in the context where I’d seen it used.

So I spoke up. I emailed two people further up the chain to make them aware that this word was being used, that it was often offensive (uncomfortable at the very least) to many Australians, and suggested other perfectly fine words that could be used instead in that context. Speaking up always carries with it risk, but I’ve been emboldened by what I’ve seen in other situations this past year or so (political, BLM, LGBTQI+, sexual harassment etc.), so I figured the risk was worth it.

Here’s a summary of my email (identifying information removed) and the response I received—it shows that speaking up CAN change attitudes and perspectives. It’s just one small step to a kinder, more inclusive society.

My email

As you are well aware, [company] has policies on inclusion and diversity, including sensitivity to others’ cultures and experiences. In light of this, I’d like to bring to your attention something I’ve noticed recently from some in your team, and that’s the use of the term ‘native’ / ‘natives’ when referring to original Word documents. I’ve seen it used in emails and in folder names in the past few weeks. I don’t know where this has come from as it’s the first I’ve encountered it in 13 years working with [company] docs.

The problem is that this word has multiple meanings, not all of them good or acceptable or appropriate for the context, and for some people, this word is offensive. Macquarie Dictionary has this to say as a usage note: ‘The use of the term native to refer to an indigenous person is associated with European colonialism and is often regarded as old-fashioned and offensive.’

While that usage note refers to usage specifically in regards to indigenous people, it’s a term that is increasingly tainted with its colonial past even when used in other contexts. In terms of documents and their lifecycle, I see no reason to use this word (which could be offensive to many) when there are perfectly fine words that can be used instead—words that don’t have multiple meanings, or that don’t cause offence to others. Words such as ‘original’. The lifecycle of a document as it goes through revisions could be ‘originals’, ‘current’, ‘archived’, ‘in progress’ or similar, with no need to use the word ‘natives’.

I ask that you consider whether this term should be used or if it should be substituted with other, clearer, terms that are more appropriate to the document lifecycle. If you decide to not use this word in this context (it’s fine in regard to describing species), could you please pass on that decision to others on your team.

Response I received

… thank you for taking the time to help me understand that the term has been [is] offensive. I am checking in with our internal Document Control lead to determine the prevalence of this term in our internal systems. … its use here may have originated from our US parent office. As an immediate step, I will ask my team to stop using this term, and I will stop using the term also. … my apologies for any offence caused. And thank you for your ongoing support.

My follow-up email included this

Language use is cultural too—for example, those is the US may not have the same reaction to ‘native’ as we do in Australia, just as we use ‘thug’ here with little understanding of how offensive that word can be in the US.

It’s only by being aware how language can exclude or marginalise people that change can happen. That’s not to say that every word with multiple meanings needs to be sanitised, but that word usage needs to be considered when writing to ensure it doesn’t ignore, offend, or marginalise large sections of the readership.

One comment

  1. Beautifully and sensitively handled.



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