Words Matter: Thursday Bram on the Art of ‘Responsible Communication’

If you want your organization to be diverse and inclusive, it takes a lot of hard work. You have to listen, expand your networks, rethink your assumptions … and you also have to make sure how you talk about what you’re doing doesn’t negate all the effort you’ve put in. Luckily, there’s help at hand: The Responsible Communication Style Guide.

Created under the aegis of Recompiler Media (the publishers of Recompiler Magazine, a feminist technology magazine launched by Audrey Eschright in 2015), the project is currently a bit more than 25% backed on Kickstarter. To find out more about the project and their approach to inclusive, respectful language, we chatted with cocreator Thursday Bram. Thursday has covered business and technology topics for publications ranging from Entrepreneur Magazine to GigaOM (and is so personally persuasive that her partner hands out “You Don’t Have To Do What Thursday Tells You To Do” stickers).

—Erin McKean

EM: I like that your new project is called “The Responsible Communication Style Guide”—what made you choose the word “responsible” to describe this project?

TB: We knew from the start that we wanted a name that reflected our goals. Many style guides are named after the company that produces them, such as The Associated Press Stylebook. We didn’t want to take that route because we don’t ‘own’ inclusive language: we want the styles and information this guide covers to be universal.

We chose to describe these styles as ‘responsible’ because, for us, writing and creating other media comes with an obligation to tell stories clearly and accurately. Doing anything else — misrepresenting an interviewee or offending an audience — is irresponsible. Personally, I feel that my writing is best when I consider how it will impact people long before I hit the button to publish anything.

EM: How does your guide differ from other style manuals out there (such as the Chicago Manual of Style or Garner’s Modern English Usage), as well as style advice provided by organizations such as GLAAD or the Conscious Style Guide?

TB: Every style manual has its own process for deciding what materials are important. For us, basing the guide on our editors’ lived experience is crucial and factors into all of our decisions. This is already providing some major insights into our recommendations. It’s pretty clear that many style guides don’t have people advocating from their own areas of expertise. One of the clearest examples was in a change in the newest version of The Associated Press Stylebook: they now recommend using ‘crash’ over ‘accident’ in order to avoid assigning blame.

We’re also finding that lived experience is crucial when dealing with the differences between the style guides put out by organizations such as GLAAD and other organizations. There are some substantial differences in how to handle identical terminology between different groups, like how a style guide covering aging talks about disabilities and how a style guide about specific accessibility issues covers the same terms. We’re tackling these topics with an intersectional approach — not just by having experienced editors from a specific community, but by also cultivating conversations between people with a variety of backgrounds.

EM: Who is the intended audience for your work? Who will find it most helpful?

TB: We’re intentionally focusing first on people creating media in and around technology: journalists, marketers, and documentarians within this field all have similar needs when it comes to style guides. We chose technology in part because of the outsized impact that technology currently has on the rest of the world — if an app is struggling with how to document and describe accessibility features, for instance, they may easily eliminate twenty percent of their potential user base.

Personally, I expect that this guide will be the most helpful for the huge numbers of content creators working in marketing roles for tech companies. The high demands for new content make slipping up easier, so having tools in place (like standardized approaches to style) that eliminate problems before they are even visible will be hugely helpful. No one wants to inadvertently insult their audience, after all.

EM: We’ve seen a lot of people complaining about “PC culture” … and yet it always seems to be that the people who complain about “PCness” are always the first to whine about their feelings being hurt by other people’s language. How do you respond to people who dismiss responsible communication as ‘too PC’?

TB: My grandmother had a term for what we think of as ‘politically correct’ these days: ‘being polite.’ In my experience, basic civility means going out of your way to make sure that you call someone by the correct name, refer to them in a non-offensive way, and to not exclude people from the community (unless you have a very good reason to act differently).

Unfortunately, I’ve found that being polite isn’t a good argument for a lot of people. But there’s a clear financial incentive for valuing diversity and inclusion. Numerous studies have shown that companies that hire *and retain* employees from a wide variety of backgrounds improve their sales revenues by up to as much as three times.

EM: Sometimes being more mindful of your language is as easy as choosing a different word — using ‘ridiculous’ instead of ‘crazy’, or (one of my favorites) ‘lacuna’ instead of ‘blind spot’. Are there particular replacements you advocate for or use yourself?

TB: I’m definitely working on removing ‘crazy’ from my vocabulary. While in professional settings I go for something like ‘ridiculous,’ when I’m looking for a way to express just how great something is in passing, I’ve gone straight to the absurd, like ‘I’m so peanut butter hula hoops in love with this!’ I’m also working on a couple of specific phrases, like ‘so easy ____ could do it.’ Any time I see a list of microaggressions, I look for any verbal cues that I can use to make better choices about words.

I’ve started using some technology to help with this process, at least in my writing. I use TextExpander to save shortcuts for my writing. If I type ‘tb,’ the app automatically expands that to ‘Thursday Bram.’ If I type ‘crazy,’ though, I’ve set TextExpander to expand that shortcut into ‘YOU SHOULD USE A DIFFERENT WORDTK.’ (The TK is to make sure my spell checker brings this to my attention.) I’ve noticed that having that reminder has made the switch a lot easier.

I also do flash cards to help me remember more precise terms. I started using flash cards to help me handle technical jargon and I’ve kept on adding words that I’d like to use more often. The more words that I have in my vocabulary, the less likely I am to choose something that doesn’t exactly convey the meaning I’m hoping for.

EM: A lot of writing advice boils down to “consider your audience”. Do you have any tips for writers or speakers who are trying to consider audiences that may have very different experiences or who come from very different backgrounds?

TB: The very first thing I recommend for any writer or speaker who isn’t sure how to connect with audience members from different backgrounds is to look at what writers and speakers you’re paying attention to. If you aren’t reading, listening, and watching media from a diverse set of sources, you’re going to have a hard time even recognizing potential problems.

Start by scrolling through your social media. Do you see any posts from people from different backgrounds? Is anyone posting about gender, health, or race? If not, expand who you’re paying attention to. From there, you’ll be better equipped to ask questions of your audience, and then incorporate their answers into your work.

EM: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while working on this topic?

TB: Language in general fascinates me. This project has let me dive deep into not only how we use language, but also how we interpret it. Even changing just one word can have a major impact. As we’ve been working on The Responsible Communication Style Guide, so many people have talked about this phenomenon, and about how they want to use words carefully as a result.

For me, these discussions have been a learning experience — not just because I’ve seen that most people are happy when they get the opportunity to write well, but also because most people are excited about how our language is continuing to evolve: last year’s word choices are not today’s word choices, which are not next year’s word choices. Just the number of neologisms we need in some of these discussions is amazing!

EM: If you had a magic wand and could change how people use English with one sparkly wave, what would you change, and why?

TB: I know that a lot of people would love to change English’s approach to pronouns, as well as other parts of speech. But I’m not too worried about English’s evolution overall. Our language is amazingly adaptive and changes to meet our needs quickly. I take heart in James Nicoll’s description of English: “…on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” We’ll find the changes we need, quite possibly left unattended by some other language where we can easily pick them up and make off with them.

That said, there is a change that I would love to make in the people who use English on a daily basis. I cannot count how many people have told me over the years that they are not writers, when, in fact, they spend their days at a keyboard or with a pen in hand. Writing a memo is writing. Writing documentation is writing. Writing an email is writing. We’re all writers, and we’re all in this together, no matter our job descriptions.

EM: What are your long-term goals with The Responsible Communication Style Guide?

TB: While our first iteration is focused on creating a guide — both in print and ebook formats — we have a long-term vision for The Responsible Communication Style Guide. Not only do we plan to make our guide available digitally, but we hope to build an API from the guide that allows other people to easily build on top of our work. We’re building the resource that makes sense for journalists and marketers, but it’s not necessarily the best tool for other use cases. I can imagine a whole host of tools for editors, programmers, academics, and more, once we’ve put this information in a format where people can adapt it to their own uses. I have no doubts that letting people use this information in the way they determine is most helpful will create the lasting improvement in communication we’re working towards.

❔ Whois TB

Thursday Bram is the editor of The Responsible Communication Style
Guide. She’s covered business and technology for publications ranging
from Entrepreneur Magazine to GigaOM.

Twitter / Web

❤️ Favorite Emoji


❔ Whois EM

Erin McKean makes Wordnik.com, dresses, trouble, and zeugmatic statements. You can follow her for weird words, dad jokes, and Javascript ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on Twitter at @emckean.

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