Using Politically Correct Language in Business Communication
Today, when professionals address the reader, they are communicating with a mixed group of nationalities: people of different age groups, ethnicities, economic backgrounds, marital statuses, and genders.
Before you begin writing a business document, here are a few questions to help you avoid discriminatory language:
Who is your reader?

Are you addressing both men and women? What is the gender mix?

Do the readers belong to different cultural or ethnic groups?

What is the age mix of your reader?

Does your reader include someone with a physical disability?

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Answering these questions will help you get a fix on the general dos and don'ts to follow in your business communication.
  • Gender discriminatory language: Language is a reflection of the sociocultural milieu of any given society. Words, phrases, titles, and designations are derived from the prevailing conditions in a society. The English language as we know it today has evolved through the ages. Many of the words, titles, and phrases that were appropriate in yesteryear have fallen out of favor now, as the society continues to rapidly change. Today the business environment is inundated with people from different cultures and ethnicities. More and more women have entered the corporate world, causing a number of gender-biased terms to be inappropriate. Even so, gender discriminatory language is one of the most prominent pitfalls that professionals face when writing a business document.

Avoid using words and phrases that needlessly imply gender.

  • For example, instead of saying, "Guests and their wives," say, "Guests and their spouses."
  • Avoid terms like "woman reporter" or "lady judge."

Use neutral job titles: Professions that were considered male bastions are now open to both men and women, hence the terms and titles used to denote a certain profession ending in "man" have been revised. See the following examples:

  • policeman -- police officer;
  • mailman -- mail carrier;
  • chairman -- chair.
Use neutral salutations if the recipient is unknown. If you do not know the gender of the recipient who will receive your communication, avoid opening your letter with "Dear Mr." or "Dear Gentlemen." In today's business environment, one cannot assume the sex of the recipient. A simple "To whom it may concern" will work well.
Avoid use of masculine pronouns: Generally, while speaking or writing, the masculine pronouns such as he, him, and his are used as a blanket term to refer to any group. In a mixed group, such blanket terms tend to negate the individuality of women. Since English does not have a third person, singular, gender-neutral pronoun, there are ways in which you can counter this problem.
      • Use a gender-neutral term such as "they," but make sure it matches a plural antecedent.

        Avoid using any pronouns by redoing the sentence.
  • Use "he and/or she" following a singular noun.
  • Occupational nouns and titles: In the past, certain nouns and titles for occupations were created for women. More often than not, these titles were derived from their male counterparts. Today, these terms have been given the boot, as they imply women's dependence on men. Words like "actress," "waitress," "poetess," and "salesgirl" have been dropped from politically correct vocabulary, and it would be wise to follow the same rules in business writing as well.
These are the rules one needs to follow to keep one's business writing free of gender-discriminatory language.
Listed below are other terms to avoid:
  • Derogatory religious or racial terms: In a cross-cultural business environment, it can be damaging for your professional reputation if you use words or phrases that have a derogatory connotation as far as religion or race goes. Language is what connects one human being to another; if one uses certain stereotypes in addressing or referring to someone, it can have a deep impact on the other person. Resentment, anger, pain, and hurt are some of the feelings that people might experience if they are labeled a certain way. References to race, religion, culture, etc., should be avoided in business communication. Terms such as "Blacks," "Scots," "Eskimos," "Orientals," and "Jews" are unacceptable.
  • Derogatory terms for physical handicaps: Terms such as "dumb," "crippled," "retarded," or even "handicapped" are considered offensive in today's world and should be avoided. Instead, using the term "person or persons with a disability" would be appropriate.
  • Use of jargon: Jargon inadvertently creeps into a professional's communication. While it is fine to use it with readers who are part of the closed user group that understands that jargon, do not inflict jargon on a lay person. This alienates and puts off a reader. Not every person in the world would know what GDP or PoP is. Your message is lost. If you have to use an abbreviation or jargon, clearly spell out the meaning for the reader. For example, when using GDP, mention Gross Domestic Product in brackets for the benefit of your reader.
  • Use of slang: Slang is meant for informal communication and while talking to an informal group of people. Using slang in business communication can put you across as non-serious and unprofessional to your reader.
  • Titles and naming practices: Getting titles right in business correspondence is vital. The title "Mr." immediately identifies the reader as a man. Titles for women are the tricky area. "Mrs." or "Miss" not only identifies the recipient as a woman but also gives away her marital status. If one is unsure of a woman's marital status, which title to use can become a guessing game. In today's business world, the use of Mrs. or Miss has been done away with, unless a woman specifically asks to be addressed that way. Instead, the more neutral title "Ms." has been brought into use, or writing out the entire name, i.e., "Dear Mary Gordon."

If you can keep these recommendations in mind, you will be able to create business communication that is courteous and politically correct. After all, the purpose of communication is to get your message across, not ruffle a reader's feathers!