Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #5: Avoid Coded Language

Coded language is everywhere – in the news, in marketing and advertising, and on the lips of politicians on both sides of the aisle. It’s one of the sneakiest presentations of need-based, sexist, racist and otherwise discriminatory communication. And it absolutely must be avoided by any communicator who wants to take a strength-based approach.

What is coded language?

The National Education Association defines coded language as “substituting terms describing racial identity with seemingly race-neutral terms that disguise explicit and/or implicit racial animus.” In our experience, coded language also shows up to disguise other sorts of bias, such as gender bias and ability bias.

Vox writer German Lopez says “coded language describes phrases that are targeted so often at a specific group of people or idea that eventually the circumstances of a phrase’s use are blended into the phrase’s meaning.”

Take, for example, words and phrases like these:

  • Thug
  • Inner city
  • Blighted neighborhood
  • At-risk youth
  • Wrong crowd
  • People from all walks of life
  • Low-income people
  • Shrill
  • Bossy

Why is coded language a problem?

At this point in our series on strength-based communication, you probably know we strongly believe that words matter. When someone chooses to use coded language, they’re manipulating words to the greatest extent possible, leveraging them to reinforce stereotypes and biases, while disguising the fact that they’re doing so. This makes it hard to detect and call out coded language. Over time, certain coded words and phrases can become so commonplace that they enter our lexicon, and even well-meaning people who have no intention of disguising a bias begin to use them. This, in turn perpetuates not just discriminatory language, but discrimination itself.

Furthermore, as we see nearly every day in politics, coded language can be used to manipulate policies and public opinion. It can be used to get people to support things they would typically be opposed to, simply by shrouding meaning and creating confusion. If we want to use communication as a force for good, we have a responsibility to avoid coded language entirely.

How can I avoid coded language?

Avoiding coded language begins with becoming aware of what it is and why it is problematic, which this post hopefully will hopefully help with. Now that you’re reading it, activate your coded language radar any time you write, speak or otherwise communicate on behalf of your organization. Coded language shows up most frequently when describing a person, group, community or geographic area, so watch those sorts of descriptors most closely. Ask yourself “are the words I’m using to describe this group (or person, community etc.) accurate, straightforward and aligned with how they’d describe themselves?” If so, you’re probably doing a good job avoiding coded language. On the flip side, if the words you’re choosing seem vague, highly open to interpretation, or loaded with double (or triple or quadruple) meaning, you may be treading into coded language territory.

If you’re unsure, the best bet is to run your word choices by the group or community you’re describing. They are the only ones truly qualified to make a call about whether a word or phrase carries a coded meaning, or is otherwise harmful to them. That practice is a smart one for all aspects of strength-based communication.

Next week, we’ll wrap up this series with a post about how to embed strength-based communication in your organization’s DNA. Until then, here are the rest of the posts in this series so far:

  1. The Latest Research and Trends in Strength-Based Communication
  2. The Equity Assessment: What Your Organization Needs to Do BEFORE Establishing Its Approach to Strength-Based Communication
  3. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #1: Use Individual Preferences and Be Specific
  4. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice # 2: Use Person-First Language
  5. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #3: Avoid Saviorism and Extreme Exceptionalism
  6. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #4: Emphasize Strengths Over Needs
  7. This Post: Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #5: Avoid Coded Language

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