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Outside Business Journal

Offensive Words and Phrases to Eliminate from Your Business Communications

Lexicons evolve. Let's grow ours by ditching these outdated expressions.

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Kiran Herbert

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Last September, sitting in a meeting room with my colleagues, a consultant described himself as a “slave driver.” A few weeks later, on a Zoom call, I heard a CEO talking about the work a company was doing in “Colombia, India, and Africa.” The former makes light of the horrific experience of slavery while the latter’s mention of Africa lumps together an entire continent and all the people on it. No harm was meant in either instance, but that doesn’t make the language any less damaging.

As a young woman of color, I’m often asked where my family is from (code for “why are you brown?”) or told how lucky I am not to have to wear sunscreen. Research shows that these types of micro-aggressions add up, taking their toll on the health of minorities by sending the message that they don’t belong.

Our daily lexicon includes dozens of common words and phrases that draw from a nasty history, perpetuate stereotypes and white supremacy, and demean others. The following list isn’t exhaustive, but reflects language commonly used in outdoor industry offices, job postings, and trade show aisles. Some might dismiss it as wokeness run amok, but there shouldn’t be anything political about speaking with respect.

‘Crazy’ or ‘hysterical’

The words here aren’t the issue. It’s how we deploy them in oppressive ways, like when describing women who challenge authority.

‘Handicapped,’ ‘crippled,’ or ‘lame’

These terms perpetuate ableism, the social prejudice that people with disabilities are inferior.

‘Long time, no see’

This phrase originated as a mockery of Native American’s broken English. Similarly, “no can do” mocked Chinese immigrants.

‘Low on the totem pole’

A totem pole is a sacred cultural artifact; this phrase belittles it. Ditto with “spirit animal.”

‘Ninja’

We see this one mostly in job descriptions. Like “guru,” the word is culturally appropriated and it’s gendered as masculine, which can discourage female applicants.

‘A sexy new product’

Let’s keep sex out of the workplace.

‘Peanut gallery’

This term stems from the section in vaudeville-era theaters where Black patrons were forced to sit.

‘Uppity’

This is a racist term, historically used in the South to describe Black people who didn’t know their place.

‘Sold down the river’

Like “slave driver,” this is a reference to the slave trade.

‘Squaw’

Originally translated as “woman” in the Indigenous Algonquian language, today the “S-word” is an ethnic and sexual slur.

‘Tribe’

Often used as a cutesy way to describe like-minded people, “tribe” has colonial origins as a bureaucratic term forced on Native Americans and incorrectly applied to many Africans.

‘You guys’

Positing men as the status quo excludes women and non-binary folks.

‘You look so young’

This micro-aggression glorifies youth and perpetuates ageism.

‘You’re so articulate’

This implies that the speaker is surprised by someone’s ability (often a woman or person of color) to speak well.

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