ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED May 16, 2019
ORIGINALLY AUTHORED BY Alyssa Kopelman
Words make a big impact. Particularly in the health and well-being space, it’s important to use empathetic, conscious language. But what does that look like in practice? Why is language so important? And how do you ensure you’re using it to best connect with your audience?
The Power and Role of Language in Health
Language is a powerful tool. It shapes the world around us and how we relate to it – for better or worse. On one hand, it can clarify, validate, and represent our day-to-day experiences, as well as others’. But it can also distort, confuse, dismiss, and erase those same experiences.
This is especially true when it comes to health and well-being. The words we use directly influence health outcomes for individuals and whole communities (especially marginalized communities). We have a responsibility to strive for inclusive language; to help everyone see themselves represented authentically.
At Healthline Media, we’ve implemented a Conscious Language Initiative to ensure our content is nonjudgmental and inclusive of communities that have historically been excluded — Black and brown people, LGBTQ+ communities, women, and disabled folks. This helps us connect and build stronger relationships with consumers, and is just one step we’re taking to create a more equitable, healthier world.
A Responsibility to Health Equity
Access to quality health information contributes to significant health disparities, many of which have harmed communities of color, LGBTQ people, women, and disabled folks. As the #1 health property in the U.S., reaching over 94 million unique visitors each month*, Healthline Media has a responsibility to provide all our consumers with accurate, timely, and inclusive content that allows them to take action and make decisions.
Using conscious language is one way to make content more accessible and inclusive to more people. It’s a step brands can take to start dismantling health disparities and addressing systemic bias through reflection, listening, and constant learning.
What Is Conscious Language?
Conscious language is language that is intentionally crafted to be inclusive, empathetic, relatable, and nonjudgmental. Biased language can perpetuate stigmas and lead to unfair inequities that overwhelmingly impact marginalized communities. From word choice to phrasing and framing, conscious language aims to reduce the bias that contributes to that inequity.
Health and well-being are extremely complex. It takes time to really understand your audience, but it’s an important step to helping them feel represented. Health media has been moving toward more person-first language (e.g., saying “people with diabetes,” rather than “diabetics”), which helps reduce certain stigmas. But we can do more.
Conscious language goes a step further. It takes the audience’s broader needs and preferences into account at every stage of content creation. Here are some thought-starters to get you thinking about your audience and their language needs:
Define Your Community. ‘Community’ means different things to different people. Think about what connects your audience – are they brought together through a shared behavior (such as running)? A shared interest (such as gardening)? A shared experience (such as living with multiple sclerosis)? Get as specific as possible.
Listen Actively. Really listen – not just to what people are saying, but also how they’re saying it. Look at the larger context and be open to feedback. Language is always evolving, so it’s critical that you stay connected and actively engaged with your audience. Social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and even Reddit) can be great places to keep up with new language trends.
Use Language as a Tool. Context is key. Remember that your words don’t live in a vacuum – they should make sense for the message you’re communicating, the channel you’re using, and the voice of your brand. The language you use is one tool; it should work seamlessly with the other tools in your box.
Building a Strong Approach to Conscious Language
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a complete and definitive list of language do’s and don’ts? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The rules are always evolving, and context and nuance make it that much more complicated. Instead of focusing on what language is “right” or “wrong,” work on laying a strong foundation of best practices that allow you to act, grow, and adapt as needed.
First, assess your tools, talent, and resources to determine where you can start implementing conscious language, and how easily you’ll be able to pivot and adapt in an ever-changing landscape.
Staying up-to-date shows your audience that you care about meeting their needs, and helps them feel seen and heard. See if you can identify existing channels (like user feedback) to flag biased or judgemental language. For example, the Healthline Media editorial teams review over 10,000 user comments each month to catch content that might need updating, including comments about stigmatizing or exclusive language. And our Medical Affairs team continues to update our content to be more conscious, inclusive and empathetic.
Below are some additional steps to consider when building a strong foundational approach to conscious language:
Diversify Your Experts. When discussing language that impacts different communities, bring members of those communities into the conversation. This is especially important with historically marginalized and excluded communities (e.g people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled folks). They are experts in their lived experience and preferences. As long as the information maintains medical accuracy, research shows that it’s appropriate to use a community’s preferred terms, and members of the community will know their preferences better than anyone.
Engage in Community-First Advocacy. Advocate for everyone’s health journey. There is no one size fits all path to well-being. Consider the impact of social, physical, and economic environments on individual health. While specific word choices will change over time, having a consistent community-first approach ensures you’re able to stay up to date.
Embrace Nuance. No practice applies to every person all the time. Even standards like person-first language, which are designed to be inclusive, won’t resonate with everyone. (Some communities do use identity-first language.) Embrace the unique nuance of your community. How does their language preference vary across age, gender, race, sex, or sexual orientation, for example? And just as important, why do these preferences exist?
Conscious language works to reduce stigma and bias from content by focusing on being relatable, inclusive, and nonjudgmental. You want your audience to see themselves in your content. By using thoughtful language that takes their preferences into account, you can broaden your reach and representation. And when marginalized communities are more represented through a conscious language approach, language becomes a tool for health equity.