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Inclusive language: What is it and how can it promote your action sports brand?

Martina Russo, CEO & founder
September 15, 2023

No matter who you are or what your outdoor sports brand stands for, the words you use to talk to and about people matter.

Let’s face it – the sports industry hasn’t always been the most diverse place in the world. Sports are expensive, gender bias is rife and accommodations for people with disabilities are severely lacking. But regardless of who you are or what you believe in, everyone should have the chance to enjoy the outdoors. That’s why inclusive language is key for driving diversity and making action and outdoor sports more accessible.

In this blog post, we’ll cover what inclusive language is, why it matters and how to put it into practice. We’ll also provide you with some real-world examples so you know which words and phrases to avoid when it comes to creating communications for your outdoor or action sports brand.

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language is all about diversity and respect. It avoids words, phrases and stereotypes that discriminate based on race, social status, gender, sexuality, age and disability in favor of language that resonates with and refers to everyone, regardless of who they are or what their life experience has been.

Inclusive language promotes equal opportunities and acknowledges cultural differences without treating anybody as inferior to others. In order to address inequality, we have to recognize it and prioritize those who’ve been excluded historically. Both outdoor/action sports and the world as a whole can benefit from a human-first approach that welcomes even more participants into the sports we love.

Why does inclusive language matter?

As the name suggests, inclusive language is all about inclusion. It makes outdoor sports fans feel like they truly belong to their communities. It helps prevent people from feeling alienated or excluded. Inclusive language invites anyone and everyone to dive into action sports – regardless of who you are, where you come from or how much experience you have.

It’s worth mentioning that non-inclusive language isn’t always intentional. However, it can often have the same effect as discriminatory words used with malicious intent. That’s why outdoor sports brands have to choose the right words to speak to their customers.

What does using inclusive language look like?

Now that you know what inclusive language is, you’ll likely (hopefully) want to start implementing it in your own communications. The following points should help get you started with a few ideas for your outdoor brand.

Overcoming stereotypes

The outdoor sports industry stretches to nearly every corner of the world. We’re a pretty friendly bunch, so it makes sense that people of all genders, races, sexualities and abilities should be welcome within our communities. Language that relies on stereotypes threatens to cause offense and divide the communities we’ve all worked so hard to build.

Many of us don’t even realize we’re doing it. But casually using terms that have negative connotations can actually be harmful. Take “peanut gallery”, for example. You might be referring to critics who sweat the small stuff, but the expression’s origin comes from the cheapest seats in a theater, where Black people were forced to sit under segregation. There are other terms like “critics” or “hecklers” that get the idea across and are less likely to cause offense.

A lot of these terms have come so far from where they started that we may not recognize their potentially harmful effects. But to break the cycle and create a more welcoming community overall, it’s a good idea to put your inclusivity filter on when reviewing any copy due to go live. Ask diverse members of your team to take a look, too. The more eyes that see it before it goes out to the world, the better.

Inclusive language examples

We’ve gone over the importance of inclusive language in creating a sporting community for all. Now let’s look at some examples of what you might want to consider the next time you draft your communications.

Gendered and patriarchal language

There’s little doubt that language tends to favor a gender binary, and often prioritizes men over women within it. We talk about “mankind” as a catch-all for humanity. And looking outside of English, many Romance languages refer to a group of people by the male version of a noun, even if the majority do not identify as such. That means a group of Italian skiers that includes only one man will still be referred to as “sciatori” (male skiers) rather than “sciatrici” (female skiers).

Society is beginning to question these norms. Even so, very few brands take into account the non-binary community, which means they’re completely ignoring part of the population. Luckily, there are some easy linguistic swaps we can make to work towards a more inclusive lexicon.

First of all, move away from gendered pronouns – like “she” or “him” – and use more inclusive language — like “they” and “them” — instead. You’ll be in good company; the International Ski Federation (FIS) Council announced in 2020 that it would use gender-neutral terms on documents, titles, the FIS website, technical materials and official communications.

You should consider using gender-neutral names and descriptors, too. Even if you’re just creating customer personas to use internally among your team, ambiguous names like Chris, Dana, Kim, Lee and Pat can help avoid gender stereotypes. See more suggestions for degendering your language below.

Term to avoidBetter alternativeWhy?
He / SheThem / TheyDoesn’t assume gender
He / SheSurfer, skier, snowboarder, climber etc.Focuses on the sports your customers enjoy, not their gender
Man / WomanPersonA person can be anyone. A man or woman is very specific and can be alienating to the non-binary community
SpokesmanSpokesperson“Spokesperson” focuses on the role, not the gender
Hey guys / Hey ladies and gentsHey everyone / Hey folks / What’s up? / Hey thereWhatever your tone of voice, these alternatives address everyone instead of labeling their specific genders
MankindPeople / Humans / Human beingsIn the outdoor sports community, we often talk about the world and how we affect nature. Instead of saying “mankind”, keep it more universal

 

Let’s check out how Patagonia does this when talking about its membership program. The brand uses inclusive phrases like “qualified outdoor individuals”. It doesn’t take away from the tone of voice, but it makes the program accessible to anyone who wants to protect their home planet.

Psst, there’s more info on this over in our inclusive sports language for LGBTQ athletes blog post.

Culturally appropriative language

It’s undeniable that some outdoor sports borrow from other cultures. For example, surfing has its roots in Native Hawaiian culture. That goes for language, too. We may say that an athlete we look up to is like a guru or refer to ourselves as members of a tribe. And phrases like “attacking the slopes” or “conquering a trail” can have negative colonialist undertones.

While we don’t mean any harm by it, we may be unaware of the origins or implications of these borrowed words and outdated phrases. And that can be a problem. Some of these phrases could be offensive or even harmful. We should try to move towards a more positive, collaborative view of our sports and nature. Nobody can conquer or own the outdoors, so we should celebrate the experience instead. You’ll find some alternatives below.

Term to avoidBetter alternativeWhy?
TribeCrew / CommunityThe term “tribe” can be associated with colonialism – particularly as a term leveled against marginalized groups of people. Some people see it as culturally offensive, so it’s best avoided.
GuruProGuru is a title of high esteem in Buddhist culture. Action brands often use the word pretty flippantly, which doesn’t take into account its deep and spiritualistic meaning. “Guru” and “pro” essentially mean the same thing, so stick with the non-offensive term.
Spirit animalKindred spiritWhile “spirit animal” has become a common term, it trivializes the relationship some indigenous cultures have with nature.

 

Race and ethnicity in language

Our race is a key part of our identity. As such, outdoor brands should be careful not to misidentify race or ethnicity. Batching different races together into one large group invalidates their individual identities and only adds to their struggles.

Term to avoidBetter alternativeWhy?
Minority / Minority groupPeople of color (POC) / Black / Indigenous / Underrepresented groupsTry to be specific when talking about marginalized people. It helps to recognize their individual struggles
Illegal immigrantsUndocumented migrant / Refugee / Displaced personNo human is illegal, so referring to some groups of migrants as such could be offensive. Instead, consider the sociopolitical factors that lead to forced migration, which could include the threat of violence and political or economic factors

 

Disability, physical and mental health in language

The action sports and outdoor industry has begun to take some  steps towards accommodating people with disabilities. But the actions we take won’t do anyone any good if they don’t know they’re welcome in the first place – that’s why the words and phrases we use matter, too. Check out our blog post on inclusive language for athletes with disabilities for more tips.

Term to avoidBetter alternativeWhy?
Disabled / Handicapped peoplePeople with disabilitiesPeople aren’t disabled – they have disabilities. Don’t define their existence by their disability; consider them as a person first
Wheelchair boundWheelchair userA wheelchair isn’t a limitation to people with disabilities – even in outdoor sports. It’s a mobility aid and source of freedom
The deaf / Deaf-mute / Deaf and dumbDeaf people / Deaf / People with hearing impairmentsThese terms are offensive because they generalize Deaf people or assume they can’t effectively communicate

 

Being inclusive also looks different in different languages. The use of gendered nouns or prevalence of differing cultural norms can present unique challenges to inclusive communication. If you’re an international brand, you’ll need to decide on an inclusive language strategy tailored to each market you operate in.

We’re here to help with both language barriers and barriers to entry

Creating inclusive content for your loyal sports fans can feel like snowboarding down a mogul-packed slope. One wrong turn and you’ll fall flat on your face. Not ideal.

If you feel overwhelmed or need an extra pair of hands, we can audit your content, define your tone of voice, translate your copy or even create it from scratch. We’ll give you the confidence you need to speak loud and proud to every single one of your customers.

For a friendly chat about your next project, shoot us a message at hello@theactionsportstranslator.com

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Martina is the CEO and founder at The Action Sports Translator. After starting her career in marketing translation in 2010, she has been recognized as a Localization industry influencer multiple years in a row and has been working with some of the world's most exciting brands to bring multilingual marketing campaigns to life.

Co-founder and localization manager at Protect Our Winters Italy, she founded The Action Sports Translator to provide outdoor brands with a sports translation service that truly gets them. When she isn’t working, you can usually find her climbing a mountain or snowboarding down the other side.

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