Using Ethical and Inoffensive Language
Ethics is the study of right and wrong (and legal/illegal) conduct. Most professional societies have codes of ethics that members are enjoined to obey. A professional code of ethics describes the moral duties and obligations proper to a given profession. For example, the Society for Technical Communication has published its “Ethical Guidelines for Technical Communicators,” using the headings Legality, Honesty, Confidentiality, Quality, Fairness, and Professionalism.
I’m not going to launch into a long definition of ethical communication. I think it boils down to three fundamental rules:
o Be helpful.
o Don’t offend people.
o Tell the truth.
In the world of work, being helpful means providing the information people need to do their jobs, to be productive, to make good decisions, and to be safe. Not offending people equates to using language that affirms people’s worth and dignity. Telling the truth needs little translation. Of course, one shouldn’t tell selective truths designed to mislead others or to wound their feelings–and, as I’ll expand upon later, we should tell the truth
This unit of instruction deals with those three fundamental concepts as guidelines in professional writing style.
Being helpful to your reader involves a good deal that’s beyond the scope of these exercises on style in scientific and technical communication. For example, the most helpful documents are those written in light of a careful analysis of the purpose and audience of the document, as well as a clear understanding about what called for the document to be written and how the document will be used. Really helpful documents are therefore very audience centered, anticipating the sequence of questions the reader is most likely to have, understanding the nature of the decisions and tasks the reader faces, and so on.
But even at the level of single sentences and minimal context, we can say something about being helpful scientific/technical communicators. In fact, if you’ve been paying good attention to these style units, you’ve been hearing it already. That’s why I’m not going to take you through a bunch of exercises on this topic. Every unit you’ve been studying has been making you a more helpful communicator. You are more helpful to your reader when you write in active voice, denominalize, cut deadwood, reduce jargon, choose the right words, etc. This goes for keeping your reader safe, too. For example–leaving aside for the moment the question of what kind of graphic should accompany the following warning–which version of the warning do you think has a better chance of keeping your reader’s hand unburned:
Note: When the mechanism is in full operational mode, incremental temperature gains up to and beyond 150 degrees Celsius may be reached on the exterior surface of the mechanism.
DANGER! Don’t touch machine during operation; it gets burning hot.
Yes, I also used a better warning tag-word (“DANGER” in all caps instead of the milder “Note”), but the main things making my revision more helpful to the reader are my reduction of jargon and deadwood and my use of active voice and direct address. These are things you’ve already been practicing in my earlier units.
Sometimes, of course, the nature of a document (or even a brief label, as in the example above) requires more precise language-in which case, use it! As I said, being helpful has a lot to do with adjusting your language for a given purpose and audience. But be warned: there’s a lot of very un-helpful documentation out there, and much of it errs on the side of wordiness, excessive jargon, and tangled sentence structures.
Don’t Offend People
Good professional writing is free (at least, it honestly and intelligently tries to be free) of expressions that might offend its readers. If your writing implies that one gender is superior to another, or one race to another, or one economic class, geographic region, culture, body weight, height, age, nationality, or religion to another–you will offend many readers. You may also offend them by using words associated with the culture of a group (for example, “wampum,” “warpath,” “powwow,” etc.). You will probably offend if the word you use to designate a group is not the one preferred by that group. So, for example, “Chinaman” will offend Chinese people, just as “Negro” (once acceptable) will now offend many African Americans.
If ever we are uncertain about the term that a group prefers (American Indian or Native American?), we can, and should, consult a style guide like the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. (Use a recent edition.) The rule of thumb is: in order to be respectful in addressing and referring to people, we should use the designations they, or their guardians, want us to use.
For that very reason, you should take care when using a “new” term to refer to a class of people. I’ve spoken with folks in wheelchairs who are angry at terms like “mobility challenged.” One of them said to me, “I’m crippled, dammit; that’s just the reality of it. I wish people wouldn’t use those stupid, patronizing names.” However, some other people without the use of their limbs may feel offended at the word “cripple” applied to them. There is no universal rule for this sort of thing; you must simply do your best to be sensitive. Does a particular person or group of people who are nearly without eyesight wish to be called “visually impaired,” “seeing challenged,” or “legally blind”? The safest bet is to ask them, but if that’s not possible, a bit of research in the style guides, or on the Internet, should answer.
There is one large class of people, however, that has given us such a large body of literature about what they prefer that we can generate a good list of guidelines for not offending them. I refer to women.
Even though you don’t intend any gender bias in your writing, you must be careful not to use language that makes one gender seem superior to another (more important, active, desirable, powerful, prevalent, pure, intelligent, etc.). This often means avoiding language biased in favor of men. Here are some guidelines for avoiding this problem:
1. Use gender-neutral nouns:
humankind not mankind
humanity not mankind
human race not mankind
human beings not men
all people not all men
mortals not mortal men
labor hours not man hours
sizable not man-sized staff
employees not man power
This rule applies especially to language that names professional roles:
police officer not policeman
fire fighter not fireman
mail carrier not mailman
chair not chairman
workers not workmen
home maker not house wife
doctor, physician not lady doctor, female physician
lawyer, attorney not lady lawyer, woman attorney
engineer not female engineer
executive not female executive, executrix
nurse not male nurse
secretary not male secretary
sailor not seaman
aviator not airman
However, use your judgment. Some words and phrases don’t lend themselves well to gender fairness:
manhole cover not personhole (womanhole) cover
Neanderthal Man not Neanderthal Person
yeoman not yeoperson
statesmanship not stateswomanship, statespersonship
unmanned space craft not unpersoned space craft
foreman not forewoman, foreperson
2. Reduce the number of gender-specific pronouns:
Use plurals where possible.
The administrator requires nurses to sterilize their hands before entering the intensive care area.
The administrator requires every nurse to sterilize her hands before entering the intensive care unit.
Use second person, imperative verbs (“commands”) where appropriate. Forklift operator: leave your machine in a fork-down, locked position.
The forklift operator must leave his machine in a fork-down, locked position.
Violate the old “agreement” rule (pronouns must agree in number with their antecedents) in favor of the more important gender-fair principle. Everyone left their laptop computer in care of the proctor.
Everyone left his laptop computer in care of the proctor.
Note: “Everyone” implies plurality but is singular in FORM and so, traditionally, calls for a singular pronoun to follow: “his” or “her.” In this sort of construction, some writers actually stick in both pronouns–”his or her”–in order to obey the old agreement rule AND maintain gender fairness. Unfortunately, “his or her” sounds labored to most of us (very labored if used frequently).
Use articles (sometimes) instead of possessive pronouns:
After filling out an application, the prospective employee should proceed to the secretarial lounge.
After filling out her application, the prospective employee should proceed to the secretarial lounge.
3. Give equal treatment to men and women.
Dr. Larsen and Dr. Jones are the new members of our anesthetics staff.
Dr. James Larsen and Dr. Sally Jones are the new members of our anesthetics staff.
Dr. Larsen and Dr. Sally Jones are the new members of our anesthetics staff.
4. When it’s important to specify gender, do it deliberately:
“Give each male test subject his injection at precisely 12:00 noon each day.”
“Give each test subject his injection at precisely 12:00 noon each day.”
5. Avoid sexual imagery and sexual jokes.
In general, men have more trouble with this than women do–pardon my accurate sexism here. Solution: just cut it out, guys! It’s extremely offensive, and it will get you into trouble, even if you think you’re confining it to communications with “the guys.” Two examples:
o An acquaintance of mine wrote in a business memo to his company’s all-male marketing department that a certain product was good, but they needed to “put tits on it.” Descriptive language, and it communicated concisely. Just one problem: it seriously offended certain people who later saw the memo. My acquaintance got into hot water, as he well deserved.
o A speaker at a technical conference I attended was describing the unreasonableness of his managers in trying to solve a particular time-sensitive problem simply by assigning more people to work on it. “That was stupid,” the speaker asserted. “Just assigning more men to the job wasn’t going to make us meet the deadline. Some projects have a certain incubation time. A woman can produce a baby in nine months with the help of one man; she can’t produce it in one month with the help of nine men.”
This speaker was confronted by several angry women immediately after his presentation. He left the conference room looking very chastened.
Well. These guidelines should keep you out of gender-bias trouble. There are other guidelines–such as the one that advises you to alternate masculine and feminine pronouns, using feminine where masculine has traditionally been used. But be careful with guidelines like that. They can make your writing look forced and unnatural. You want your writing to feel natural as well as affirming of the worth and dignity of both genders. If you’re in doubt, just have a friend of the opposite gender read through your writing. Here are some exercises to help you refine your gender-sensitive (and all-around sensitive) sentences.