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Uncontrollable Pegasus: The Importance of Language

A few weeks ago, I was with a group of 7th-grade students who taught me something interesting. They told me that one of their peers was famous in Japan for a music video that he had made where he is shown singing in Japanese. The students encouraged their friend to share his video with me by saying, “Show her uncontrollable pegasus!” As I watched the video, I discovered that the phrase “uncontrollable pegasus” more precisely translates to “wild horse.”

While this translation is fairly accurate, I considered how different the words really are. “Wild” is different from “uncontrollable” because it also includes the ideas of “living in the natural environment” or “not being domesticated.” In addition, a pegasus is a mythological creature that is depicted as a stallion with large wings. Therefore, the difference between an “uncontrollable pegasus” and a “wild horse” could be viewed in contrast as an “out-of-control mythical creature” and an “animal living in its natural environment.” Those are very different things! This experience made me consider how important words can truly be and the impact that they can have on understanding.

Translations can get lost all the time. As leaders, it is our job to use our language to be inclusive and clear to all those with whom we interact so that our messages don’t get lost or misinterpreted. We cannot assume everyone has the same level of education, employment, socioeconomic status, experiences, knowledge of jargon, or even a first learned language. If our intent is to be inclusive to everyone, then the way we communicate should be thoughtful and respectful in conveying that. As Ashley Bischoff puts it, “The power of words lies in how they are received.”

One common way to be a good leader is by using inclusive language, which is a way of communicating that is not limiting to specific groups. Inclusive language encompasses a wide range of topics including gender, ability, and culture. For example, I use inclusive language by addressing large groups of people as “friends,” “y’all,” or “everyone” instead of saying “you guys.” It may seem like a small change, but it makes me feel more inclusive and welcoming as a leader who values connecting with others.

Challenging yourself to be generously inclusive with your language can be helpful to make people on your team, people at your school or people who you work with feel understood, respected, and comfortable in the group. It is essential in embracing diversity, building relationships, and avoiding assumptions which all make you a more inclusive leader.

Here are some tips that have helped me to be more inclusive with my language:

  • It’s not a chore: If you are thinking “I am not inclusive in my language at all! How do I even begin to change my ways?” Don’t worry, it is a learning process that you can always improve upon. It took me a few months to get away from using “you guys” in everyday conversations and now I don’t even have to think about it.
  • Focus on one word at a time: If you notice that one word or phrase is holding you back from being inclusive, just focus on that one. Maybe you constantly say “waiter” or “waitress” when you could just as easily say “server.”
  • Listen to others: Sometimes it can be difficult to hear inclusive language while you are trying to communicate. Listen to your friends or people on TV to see if you can hear when they could improve. I think I remember watching a movie where the main character kept using the wrong language with a character who used a wheelchair. She kept saying things like “Let’s walk to the store” or “Stand for what you believe in” when she instead could have used, “Let’s go to the store” or “Be steadfast in what you believe in.” Hearing people not use inclusive words could be helpful to inspire new ways for you to improve.
  • Consider what is inclusive to you: Think of some defining words about you that make you proud. Some identifying words that are important to me are woman, educator, and American. When these groups are not included when they should be or are used incorrectly in communication, I notice the absence of inclusive language. Consider the difference between the people that includes “all Americans” or “people who live in the United States.” Depending on the situation or idea that is being communicated, one phrase could be more clear, correct, and inclusive.

Our words have power. If you struggle using inclusive language, challenge yourself to work on being more intentional with your words. It will have a positive impact on the people around you and allow you to better include and involve others.  

*Leadership Lesson*

Dimensions of Diversity

You can explore your own and your team’s dimensions of diversity to find out what is important to them and what you can do to better include and engage them in your process. Complete the Dimensions of Diversity model from Gardenswartz and Rowe and discuss which elements of individuality are the most important to you and which ones you think about the least. Share with your team and decide how to move forward together in ways that will be more inclusive of everyone in your group!

*Meet the Author*

Meghan Harney
4 yrs with Leadership Inspirations

B.A. in Integrated Educational Studies from Chapman University
M.Ed. in Secondary Education from Regis University

My Favorite Quote: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” –Oscar Wild 

Quick Facts About Me: 1) My dream job would be an SNL cast member, 2) I love to plan parties and 3) I sing in my car like I’m performing a sold-out show.