He, she, it…Language as a reflection of awareness

Respectful communication

It is Pride Month, and social media is full of rainbow flags and posts about diversity and equity. We have also been contemplating these topics—or rather, the societal values they represent—in terms of how they relate to language.

At Unequity, we live our values. After all, we describe ourselves as the People-to-People Agency. And in our people-to-people communication, we aim to use gender-neutral language. When writing in English, this isn’t too difficult but in German, we have gendered nouns.

In German, it can be a challenge to balance the need for clear, easy-to-understand writing with the goal of using inclusive language. More to that later, but first we need to take a short detour to explain what ‘gendern’ means in the German language and why it’s slightly controversial.

The ‘gendern’ debate

Right now, in Germany, there’s much debate about ‘gendern’, or the gendering of language.

German companies are currently facing this challenge, and the pressure from both sides of ideological divide. Those who dislike ‘gendern’ and find it spoils the flow of writing, and those who appreciate the effort to use more inclusive language. For instance, the gendered form of ‘an employee’ is der Mitarbeiter (masculine) and die Mitarbeiterin (feminine). When we are talking about all of the employees of a company, until recently, we would have written die Mitarbeiter, but that takes the masculine form which isn’t very inclusive. Or die Mitarbeiterinnen (plural, but all female employees).

To be more inclusive, we could write die Mitarbeiter und Mitarbeiterinnen but when you are writing about employees, and you have to write that dozens of times in one newsletter or blog post, it can feel a bit wordy!

To avoid this, it has become common for companies to use a colon or Genderstern (gender asterisk) to create a new, gender-neutral version: Mitarbeiter:innen or ‘Mitarbeiter*innen’. Or they use the other methods we describe below of avoiding gendered nouns altogether. And that’s where it’s gotten a bit controversial.

Let’s go back to inclusive language and communication.

A philosopher of language once said, ‘Genus is not sexus’. We can’t escape this linguistic fact. In Germany, the sun (die Sonne) is not female, and the moon (der Mond) is not male. And the same applies, for example, for one of our core business areas, der Mitarbeiterbeteiligung or the employee shareholding. (In English, we’d be more likely to call it an employee participation plan, or incentive plan but in German, it’s a compound noun).

Mitarbeiterbeteiligung is not male or female. Companies don’t offer employee share programs only to Mitarbeiter but rather to Mitarbeiterinnen and those who do not identify as either the former or the latter.

When we write for our German-speaking clients, we have to decide how to deal with the gendered noun. Often, we opt to avoid it altogether by writing, Beteiligung für Mitarbeitende (share participation of employees) but that’s a bit unwieldy and long-winded. There are many other examples we could use that really challenge our copywriters (Textenden! Or maybe Copywriterinnen?) such as: Die Mitarbeiteraktionäre (employee shareholders) who become:Aktionärinnen und Aktionäre (shareholders) or maybe die Gruppe der Mitarbeitenden, die Anteile an dem Unternehmen hält (the group of employees that hold shares in the company).

And yet, we are aware that words transport more than just meaning. They also reflect our intellectual or philosophical position on a subject.

Awareness is critical—and it is also important that we are patient with one another, as language is shaped by culture, and its connotations have grown and shifted over time. We are all trying. We try being aware of language, and we try being patient because linguistic habits don’t change overnight. All of us have the best intentions of being understanding and respectful in our communication. And in time, we will all get much better at this. Whatever we use: a Genderstern (gender asterisk – Mitarbeiter*innen) or a colon (Mitarbeiter:innen), or a neutral rephrasing (Mitarbeitende Person, Arbeitskraft), what we leave unsaid is important. And that is – we are open and tolerant towards every form of gender identity, sexual orientation, and lifestyle. It’s the person that counts.

As humans, and as Kommunikationsexpertinnen* (communications professionals), we stand for confident and respectful communication – multilingual, multifaceted, yet clear.

*No gendering needed here because we are a diverse all-women team right now. From 26 to 62 years, in various phases of their life, from singles to same-sex marriages, with life partners, patchwork extended families, or with several children. One of our values is ‘authenticity’, and that means we can all be who we are. And that goes for everyman – literally. If you are a guy interested in joining our team, we’re currently looking for a Senior Designer (m/f/d) and a Working Student (m/f/d).