Episode 407: Dr. Suzanne Wertheim. Inclusive Language in Today’s World Wins the Day!

Episode Summary

In this episode, Dr. Suzanne Wertheim joins us to share her expertise in inclusive language and its impact on both personal and professional relationships, how to learn it, use it properly, and correct ourselves when making mistakes. Suzanne Wertheim is a Keynote Speaker, Workshop leader, Anti-bias Consultant, CEO of Worthwhile Research & Consulting, and the Author of “The Inclusive Language Field Guide.”

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our “Becoming Your Best” podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We have a special guest with us today. She is a national expert on inclusive language and an international keynote speaker with more than two decades of experience researching and speaking about inclusive language. She is also the author of the forthcoming book—and she’ll tell us about this—”The Inclusive Language Field Guide: Six Simple Principles for Avoiding Painful Mistakes and Communicating Respectfully.” So welcome, Suzanne Wertheim. 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: Thank you so much for having me, Steve. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’ve been looking forward to this because our language has such a big impact on everything we do, on relationships, and other things. Before we get started, I’d like to tell you a little more about Suzanne. After getting her PhD in linguistics from Berkeley, Dr. Wertheim held faculty positions at Northwestern University of Maryland and UCLA. She’s done fieldwork with speakers as diverse as Tatar nationalists in the former Soviet Union, Native Americans in central California, comedians in Los Angeles, and female engineers in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. In 2011, Suzanne left the university system to apply her experience to real-world problems. Currently, Dr. Wertheim serves as the CEO of Worthwhile Research and Consulting, which specializes in analyzing and addressing bias at work. At Worthwhile, Suzanne offers customized training for clients based on her original research and leads both short-term and long-term consulting engagements. She has a long list of clients, and we’d all know their names. So let’s get going, shall we, Suzanne? 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: Delighted to do it. What a very thorough intro. I’m very excited. So, yes. 

Steve Shallenberger: Tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that had a significant impact on you. 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: I’ll tell you that, actually, a big turning point was going to grad school. So, in my book, I share my own mistakes—not all of them; I didn’t have room for that—but I shared my own mistakes and my own process of learning. For me, I would say one of the biggest turning points was: I used to see the world a particular way before I learned how to analyze language in a very scientific way. I would say things like, “Well, I wouldn’t mind if someone said it to me,” or “Hmm, aren’t they being oversensitive?” I don’t know why certain things showed up — the patterns. I didn’t see yet the underlying patterns. I very honestly feel like both my grad training, and then all of the research I’ve done since then, I feel like I have a superpower. I tell this to my clients: I feel like I’ve been given X-ray vision, because there’s stuff that used to be opaque to me, and now it’s very transparent. So, what I try to do with this book, and then with my other engagements, is give people as much of that X-ray vision as I can. So, for me, the turning point was science. 

Steve Shallenberger: I like that analogy that you’re using: help people have X-ray vision so they can see what to do. And I must admit this—at least in my lifetime—language is far more important today than maybe 20 or 30 years ago. There are so many different things we need to be sensitive to. I appreciate one of the comments you said: “Oh, that person is just oversensitive.” Well, that’s a problem if we think that way. We need to be sensitive, because every relationship is important, and we care. So, what makes language inclusive, and what keeps our language from being inclusive? 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: I would frame this as even you’re saying language is more important than ever, but I feel like that’s, in some respects, a surface expression of a cultural shift that I’ve been watching happening, which is a change in etiquette. So, I would say, 21st-century etiquette, which has a lot of people I talk to very nervous—they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to say the wrong thing,” or “I’m going to get canceled,” or “I’m going to hurt somebody because I don’t know what to do.” There’s a lot of stress out there. But what I try to say to people—I don’t try; actually, I say it to them—21st-century etiquette is the same as 20th-century etiquette. The only difference is that when I was growing up, there were all kinds of people that it was okay to ignore, be disrespectful to, or pretend like they didn’t matter. And I think what’s happening is that we are holding ourselves accountable in a way that we didn’t use to, and saying, “These people deserve to be treated with the same respect, consideration, and valuation as other people, also that they exist.” So, I’ll give you one example: I’m Gen X, and so I’m a kid of the ’80s. I was raised in school, and in college—I didn’t take a lot of hard science in college—but I was raised to think of gender as there being only two genders. So, you’re female, you’re male; you come out, people say, “It’s a boy,” “It’s a girl,” and we’re done. And a few people would have very expensive, difficult surgery to move from one gender to another. And that was it. And it turns out that that’s just not scientific reality.  

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: So, there’s a whole group of people that I didn’t know existed, and now I know better. And those people have different names but the umbrella term is often called non-binary. So, there are so many ways that the English language presents gender as if there are only two. So, even though in your brain, you might think, “Okay, now I know there are non-binary people,” I talk to people who suddenly have a non-binary or transgender grandchild or child, and they’re like, “I don’t really know what to do.” So, I say, “There are so many things to watch out for.” People think about pronouns, but I want to talk about things like when you say, “All the men and women at our company.” I was just on a train, gave a keynote in Milwaukee, and I took the train to Chicago, and the conductor kept on saying, “Ladies and gentlemen.” And I had just been talking on a podcast with a transgender host who said, “Every time there’s an announcement saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ I feel bad.” So, that’s what I would say is that the etiquette has shifted and now we just have to figure out where are these tiny bits and pieces in the language where we’re not in alignment with our good intentions. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I love your perspective; it’s an issue of becoming more sensitive and taking more responsibility for people. Maybe this has always existed, but it just hasn’t been at this level. What are the biggest minefields, Suzanne, that you see out there in inclusive language or needing to be more inclusive—things that might trip people up? 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: I mean, I see a lot of minefields. I collect a lot of stories through what I call employee experience interviews. So a lot of my data comes right from the mouths of people who I say to them, “Is there ever a time at work that you felt like you’re being marked too low?” I’d ask a particular company, “How can we do better?” So, I’ll say to somebody from a marginalized or underrepresented group—someone female, a person of color, or someone perceptively disabled—I’ll say, “Was there a time you felt like you were being marked too low, as if people were treating you as lower than your actual position? Was there a time you felt like you were being pushed out towards the margins or outgrouped altogether, and you were central?” And they all have stories. I’ll tell you that, very honestly, the biggest minefield is a lot of people use language that shows they don’t have high expectations or think highly of people who don’t fit their prototype for a job. They’ll say things, with surprise, to a black person who’s just done a presentation and done a good job, “Oh, you’re so articulate.” I’ve got a black colleague that I co-lead an inclusive language workshop with. When I’ve been called articulate, it’s always clearly a compliment, like, “Oh, you were so articulate about this difficult stuff. You spoke so well about it.” When she’s been called articulate, some of the time it’s been a compliment, and she’s a fantastic speaker. But sometimes it’s been shock, like, “Oh, you went to Stanford, and you speak in this standard dialect.” So, very honestly, the biggest minefield, and I have so many examples of this, is where people are presumed incompetent or non-technical. I work in tech a lot. Because I’m in the Bay Area, so a lot of my clients are in tech. Again and again, women tell me people treat them like they are technically incapable when they’re, in fact, very skilled and specialized and very knowledgeable. So that’s, I think, the sneakiest one, and very pervasive and very hurtful to so many people. 

Steve Shallenberger: I can see exactly what you’re saying. In other words, we might even have bias. We may not even realize that bias is coming out and influencing our speech.  

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: 100%. In fact, I was just talking the other day to a crowd about how language is so complicated. It’s really our most complicated skill. And it takes so long—think about little kids who learn to be grammatical long before they learn to be appropriate. So, there are so many stories of little kids saying things that are very grammatical. Sometimes kids’ grammar mistakes are very cute. But sometimes they do a thing, like if people still use the telephone, where they’ll just say something and be like, “Okay,” and they hang up the phone. There are so many things kids do that are inappropriate; it takes us a long time to learn what the social expectations are for language. And so we can have these conscious ideas that we absolutely believe in, genuinely believe in—like, all genders are equal, or people of all races and ethnicities are equally capable. There’s variation within every group, the same, some people come out great, and some people less great. And then, because we’ve been programmed to speak a certain way, and in a more old-fashioned way, like we learned from adults when we were little, and they learned from adults, with our language patterns, we’re often replicating very old-fashioned norms and ideas. And the stuff that comes out of our mouths or our fingers is really at odds with our conscious thoughts. So, this is why being scientific and figuring out where those pain points are, where those problems are, a lot of nervous people are less stressed after talking to me because I’m like, “I got six principles. Just make sure you’re following these six principles, you’re gonna have to do a little research, you’re gonna have to ask questions of people, and then you’re good to go.” And you can self-correct. 

Steve Shallenberger: I like to consider myself a fair person. I mean, I feel like personally, that I can learn from every single person that I meet. And yet, in today’s world, it can be a little bit challenging. I’d like to give an example. And I’d really love to get your advice on this situation because I think it plays into this. Recently, one of my grandchildren, eight years old, was visiting, and I was talking with a man who is a large man who has changed genders and dresses as a woman, has a woman’s name, but still has a deep voice and is really strong. And I’m visiting, and this grandson is looking at the deep voice. And after this person left, he said, “Grandpa, was that a man, or was it a woman?” Now, I gave an answer. But I’d love to see what would you recommend that we say. It’s tough because we respect that person, and yet, I’ve got to say, it’s a little tough for me. And I’d like to get my bias out there and really focus in on that person and teach my grandson right. What are your thoughts? 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: My thoughts are: I literally wrote my book, in part, for people in these situations. I made it so you only have to read Chapter Three. Because I had family members in similar situations. So, when people transition later in life and haven’t been able to use puberty blockers and hormone blockers, it’s hard. Transgender people call it “passing.” So, there are people who, when they trusted me that they were transgender, I had no idea at all. Some of them are my undergrads, some of them are colleagues, and they transitioned early enough that they were able to take on the physical characteristics of the gender they felt. So, I would say, for anybody in your position — I mean, I’m not here to be like, “buy my book,” but I’m just saying, so many people are in this position that I literally front-loaded everything. So, you only have to read Chapter Three. Let me give you a little synopsis of Chapter Three. Now, when we talk about gender, the thing is also things are going to change a lot, the terminology is going to change, even though the science isn’t. So, we’re all assigned a gender at birth. We emerge from a mother — we emerge from somebody who carried us, a pregnant person, and a doctor looks and makes a call: “This baby is a boy; this baby is a girl.” So, we call that assigned female at birth, or assigned male at birth. Now, especially in the pandemic, a lot of people, when they didn’t have a lot of social pressure to perform as a person for other people, a lot more people have come to terms with the fact that they’re not the gender they were assigned at birth. And so, people have different names for themselves, different labels for themselves, when they are not that gender. Some people will say they’re agender, some will say they’re genderqueer, some will say they’re transgender, some will say they’re non-binary. 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: So, for this person, it sounds like there’s somebody who has transitioned; that they realized they were assigned male at birth, but actually, and I think eventually, the science will figure this out. By the way, there are plenty of cultures that are not English-speaking that have had names for people in this situation for millennia. So, we’re just catching up. But there are plenty of people who have had these ideas. A lot of First Nations people, a lot of Native American people, and a lot of people in the Pacific Islands areas have had names for a long time. So, the answer is, whatever gender somebody tells you that they are, you refer to them with that gender or that label. So, if that person says, “I’m female,” then you’re like, “Okay, this woman,” and you say, “woman.” If this person says, “This is my name now,” you don’t use what’s called the deadname, which is their old name, you use their new name that goes with their new gender presentation. And when you explain to kids, kids get it right away. They can get that somebody isn’t performing gender the way that we expect. Because they were sometimes people will call it “trapped,” or they were in a body that didn’t match their gender. And now, the body hasn’t changed as much. So, you can say, “This is somebody who, when they came out from their mom, the doctor said, they were a boy. But actually, it turns out, they’re not a boy. So they’re changing, and so inside they’re a girl, but their appearance doesn’t match as well as some other girls who were able to get the hormones they needed earlier.” And that’s it. My friends’ kids, now I’m in the Bay Area, so this has been more openly discussed for longer, but my friend’s kids have no problems with pronoun use and with labels; for them, it’s just the way the world is. So, there are so many kids I knew are 6, 7, 8, who have a much broader vocabulary than even I, they’re much more fluent than I am in this stuff. 

Steve Shallenberger: Both for my benefit and the benefit of our listeners, sometimes on emails or other things, we’ll see when a person has their name at the end, it’ll say she/her or he/him. Tell us what that means. Why are people putting that, and what’s the benefit? 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: So, that’s called pronoun presentation and it’s useful for a lot of people. I’ll tell you, I showed up, I was maybe going to do a research project with some people at Stanford. So, I showed up looking for the female postdoc who had emailed me, named Michelle. And it was a tall Italian guy. So, if this had happened early enough, this is the guy who, all the time, people thought was, if it was email only, they always thought that he was a woman. So, it can be beneficial, I’m gonna say, not just for people with gender presentation that might be ambiguous. So, there are people who use pronouns that we consider regular. So, for a long time, to refer to only one person, you would say, let’s just say she or he, keep it simple, and not use all the other forms. And I’m going to tell you that we know how to say “they” for a single person, it’s just that that person isn’t known. So, a teacher might send out an email: “Somebody left their sweatshirt on the bus, they need to pick it up tomorrow.” So, we know that it’s only one person, but it’s a single person who’s not known, that we have to learn how to do it. So, people who are transgender or non-binary feel so much social pressure a lot of the time and feel so othered, or there are people who are non-binary, who look very feminine or very masculine, and are constantly misgendered or misrecognized. So, if only the people who are “weird,” put their pronouns at the end of their email signature. If we were on Zoom, you would see that I have it set up for Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, I’ve always set up. So, every time I send out an email, it says, “Suzanne Wertheim, PhD, (she/her).” That way, people know what my pronouns are. And it makes it so that the pronoun conversation is already going. It’s not just that “weird people” present their pronouns; everybody presents their pronouns. So, it’s a normal thing to do, and then everybody knows. Again, there are plenty of benefits for people named Blake, or not Madison anymore but I still know a few male Ashleys.  

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: So, it’s not just for people whose gender identity is different than you might expect, but there’s a lot of people with ambiguous names. So, it’s this new etiquette that I’m talking about. And I think that’s going to become more and more common. And it just makes it easier to know that you’re being polite. Because one rule of 21st-century etiquette is that you don’t misgender people. How can you make sure you’re not misgendering people? They volunteered their pronouns to you. So, you already know how to gender them. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, thank you. That’s a good answer. Let’s say one of our listeners blows it, how can you apologize and move on from making a mistake in language? 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: So, I’ve talked to people about this: you are guaranteed to make mistakes. I am a former professor of linguistics; I’ve learned multiple languages. I promise you that when you change grammar—so, pronouns are grammar. If you go to a restaurant with a new cuisine, and it’s got a new dish. You can just say that new dish from that point onward; it’s so unproblematic. You’re like, “Oh, I really want to eat this tajine,” or whatever. We take nouns like that into our vocabulary like a snap. But grammar words get stuck around puberty, and it’s hard to change. And when you get to my age, or your age, you’ve said “she” to refer to one person, or “he” to refer to one person, literally millions of times. So, I promise you, there is a 0% chance you’re not going to flub it when you’re using “they” to refer to one person. There’s no chance. So, what I’ve been told by multiple people is simple, either, if you figure it out yourself—a self-correction, “Oh, she—sorry, I meant they,” and you move forward. Or if somebody corrects you, you say, “Oh, goodness, so sorry, yes, they. I’ll try to keep that in mind.” And then you work really hard to correct it. What you don’t do is make a big deal out of it. I was talking to someone recently, and their manager keeps on messing up and isn’t making that effort needed to move to the next level, and then makes the biggest, “Oh, my goodness, I keep on forgetting that you’re non-binary.” So, it doesn’t make that person feel seen, valued, or welcomed. It feels like their manager’s only focusing on how different they are, and how hard they’re making it to be polite. They’re an obstacle to politeness rather than a full human being, asking to be treated with respect and recognized for who they are.  

Steve Shallenberger: Every one of us in business is really looking for highly productive, high-performing employees. That’s what we want: employees that can make a difference. So, dealing with this has a real impact on business, both in financial terms and employee retention or turnover. So, what’s your point of view on this, Suzanne? How can language harm a business and even a reputation?  

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: I have many thoughts on this. I just finished up a three-part newsletter series about it, it is called “Problematic Language is Expensive.” So, when do people reach out to me and say, “Hey, Suzanne, I need you to come in and run a workshop for these people,” because they finally figured out that it’s costing them money. But a lot of companies haven’t figured it out yet. So, I’ll give you a few examples of the way that just a few words can cost money. I’ve got an example of a sales rep who talked over the female tech expert who was next to him, and used two words—misgendered a hypothetical person who was actually in the room. He assumed that somebody was male because it was a technical role, and that person was a woman and in the room. And the person I interviewed who was there said, she watched that $4 million deal go down the drain as soon as he said, “Oh, just talk to your IT guy. He’ll get it.” She watched that deal disappear, six months in the making. I’ve had high-level talent acquisition people say that they had specialty speaking of highly productive. A lot of people acquire expertise and have very niche expertise. It can be hard to find them, and expensive to find them, and you try to bring them in. And then if they are misgendered, or people make an assumption about their sexual orientation, they’ll say, “Oh, your husband or your wife.” They see a wedding ring and make an assumption that they’re heterosexual, or they see a self-presentation, they assume that they’re male or female, and there may be something else. Candidates withdraw. They’re like, “If I can’t be treated with the most basic decency, if somebody can’t even imagine that someone like me exists.” Someone has told me, I get pulled out of my flow state. If somebody sends me an email, and I’m in a flow state, which is the most productive, and somebody misgenders me—that flow state is gone. I don’t want that. I love my flow state. Marketing people have been putting some bad stuff in there and they alienate clients, or people very often will just quit. People lose high performers because they have felt so unwelcomed and so unrecognized by their colleagues that at a certain point, sometimes they just feel unsafe. And they’re like, “Well, why would I take my time and energy and do this difficult work, educating them how they keep on hurting me or disrespecting me or making me feel bad or whatever? Why am I gonna bother?” And they literally just leave. Those are just a few of the examples. But it’s expensive and it’s invisible. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, totally—huge cost, huge return, and very costly if you have a culture that is not sensitive.  

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: And respectful. I mean, your book is so much about the golden rule. There’s so much alignment with inclusive language and your principles. For example, the golden rule, building and maintaining trust, being accountable, and applying knowledge. All of these have a language component to them. They’re not only language, but if you want to be a good leader that people trust, if you show your good intentions, for example, with inclusive language, this is what I tell people all the time. Everyone expects you to make mistakes. If you’re learning a foreign language, you’re gonna make mistakes. If you’re learning this new kind of language, even if it’s just in English, you’re going to make mistakes. People are so willing to give you grace and forgive you, when they see that you’re making a mistake because you’re trying, as opposed to, I’ve given a few examples of people who make it seem like it’s an obstacle, a difficulty, or sighing, all of these things. Why are you so difficult when the problem is with the person who’s not shifting with the times and recognizing that more people exist, and are in their company than they used to think?  

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, I’m just beyond shock how fast these interviews go. We’re right at the end here. So many more questions I have. I want to hear those six steps. I’m excited to get your book and also order the audible. I can’t wait. And this is important for any culture, for any family. This should be a subject that we talk about and increase our sensitivity to. Before we wrap up today, Suzanne, what final tips would you like to leave with our listeners today? 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: I think the tip is that if you practice just a little bit every day, you can make progress. You can find ways to practice. In my book, I give activities. My book is secretly a six-month course. I’ve set you up so that you can practice a little bit each day in the privacy of your own home. Then, in a business setting or a higher-stakes setting, you’ve already had that practice, so your tongue or your fingers know what to do because you’ve already done it, rather than doing it the first time. That’s my biggest tip. Just like learning a foreign language. Duolingo emails you every day, like, “Practice, practice, practice.” And I’m saying it’s the same thing—five minutes a day can do real wonders for your abs and for your language. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, tell us about your book, the title of your book, and how can people find out about what you’re doing. 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: The book is “The Inclusive Language Field Guide”. It is now available—by the time your listeners are hearing it. It’s available anywhere books are sold. It is a paperback, it is an ebook, and it is me narrating on Audible or any other audiobook format that you have, for seven hours and 55 minutes. I read it slow so when people speed it up, it still sounds okay. I don’t sound like a chipmunk. And the best way to find me and learn more is at I recommend that people sign up for my newsletter because twice a month, I give away knowledge. Once a month, I give away an article that gives people tips; those are business-oriented articles for the most part. And two weeks later, every month, I give away free advice. Readers email me with an inclusive language question. And if it’s a good one, I anonymize it and give away that knowledge. So, if you want to know more, a little five-minute read twice a month, you can get them for free. 

Steve Shallenberger: It’s been such a delight. Dr. Suzanne Wertheim has been with us today. Thank you, Suzanne, for being part of this show. 

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: Thank you so much for having me. It’s genuinely an honor.  

Steve Shallenberger: And congratulations on the very impressive and important work that you’re doing.  

Dr. Suzanne Wertheim: Thanks again.  

Steve Shallenberger: And to all of our listeners, we’re so privileged to have you with us to listen and to be part of the show. It says so much about you, your desire to do better, to make the world a better place, to have strong relationships, and live these principles of Becoming Your Best. So, thank you for being with us. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, signing off. Have a great day. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

Suzanne Wertheim

Founder of Worthwhile Research & Consulting

Keynote Speaker, Workshop Leader, Consultant, Author

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