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The death of American man George Floyd has caused a seismic shift in global politics and culture. 

The wave – tsunami – of justifiable outrage that followed his death first washed over modern policing and politics in the USA, and then flooded across the world finding real or perceived injustices where ever it travelled.

The initial anger at the establishment has since been directed at statues and historical monuments (including, in Australia, figures from very recent history).

And now, language has become the most recent area in which traditions are being questioned.  n Australia, a craft beer called “Colonial” has joined Coon cheese as a target. A newly appointed Greens Senator from Victoria has called for the state of Queensland to change its name, to avoid honouring British Monarchs that – to use her phrase – “murdered people”. 

Some in this debate argue that words and phrases evolve over time to stand for something entirely different from the original meaning, and that the context and intention are more important than the literal interpretation.

Others maintain that particular words and phrases, such as “hysterical”, have derogatory connotations that are derived from the original meaning, and continue to be offensive regardless of any new or intended meaning.

So in this era of the engaged and enraged, how can businesses communicate effectively and persuasively with their stakeholders without attracting the ire of the mob?

When the connotations attached to particular words and phrases can change so quickly, how are we to future-proof our language to ensure we don’t fall foul of new interpretations in popular culture even just a few years down the track?

At first glance, the answer might appear to be to take an ultra-conservative approach to any lasting communications. Professional communications, however, need to be entertaining and persuasive. Looking for a bland, inoffensive middle ground will undoubtedly reduce the efficacy of our words.

Perhaps the better approach is to write as we have always written – and not get into self-censorship – but then cast a critical eye over our work once it’s done. 

Within reason, we should look for any words or concepts that might cause offence and/or attract unwanted attention. And if there is anything that jumps out at us, we should ask ourselves whether it is necessary, and whether another word or phrase could stand in its place.

Most of all, we should try to use inclusive language in all our important business communications.

This is, after all, the goal of corporate communication – to include and connect with as many stakeholders as possible in a way that commands attention. Using the right words to do that isn’t new.

Language and culture are always evolving. Our challenge is to keep pace with the evolution.

For all your corporate and stakeholder communications needs, contact the SAS Group.



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