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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

What is conscious language? Using words with the intention to build up.

Updated: May 10, 2023

A bulletin board displays pronouns

Language is the currency of communication. It is thought, written, spoken, sung, illustrated, and expressed in a multitude of ways. Words can pop into our heads subconsciously, or, they can be thoughtfully and intentionally chosen, becoming conscious language.

Conscious language is a term that can be applied broadly to encompass the variety of ways language can be used to empower others. Language that may be interpreted as degrading or offensive is consciously and deliberately avoided.

Conscious language also applies to the language we think and say about ourselves, often referred to as self-talk, and seeks to transform negativity into positivity, possibility, and affirmation.

Conscious language builds up, respects, and empowers. It enhances communication by breaking down barriers and by building bridges. Conscious language creates more effective communication.

Let’s explore several ways using conscious language makes a difference.

Conscious language is neutral and non-judgmental

The words we use to describe people are often fraught with demeaning connotations. For example, to label someone as retarded is never considered acceptable. However, to describe someone as a person with Down’s Syndrome is neutral and non-judgmental.

Using “person-first” language is an approach to avoid negative or derogatory labels. It is used most often when describing people living with various conditions or diseases. For example, rather than say someone is a diabetic they are described as a person with diabetes.

Choosing neutral, non-stigmatizing language to describe having excess weight can be especially challenging. Words like fat or obese can be offensive or not depending on the person. Terms that are more broadly acceptable are higher weight, high-BMI, or larger body.

Refer to this useful and comprehensive style guide for conscious language.

Conscious language respects the recipient

Communication is most effective when the sender and recipient acknowledge one another in the manner each one prefers. When you introduce yourself in spoken or written communication, share your preferences. Ask others to do the same.

If we know one another’s names, using a person’s preferred name demonstrates the greatest respect and builds the strongest connections. Find out what someone wants to be called – first name, nickname, or formal full name. Calling people by name can be powerful.

In chapters 34 and 35 of Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide, we discuss ways to address an audience using gender-neutral titles. This is as simple as saying everyone instead of ladies and gentlemen, or students instead of boys and girls.

When referring to individual audience members use preferred names whenever possible. When a name is unknown, use the individual’s preferred pronoun. When preferred pronouns are unknown, it is now considered acceptable to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.

For example, if a participant named Taylor contributed to a discussion, ideally address the speaker and audience using their name: “Thank you. Did everyone hear what Taylor said?” Alternatively, you could say: “Thank you. Did everyone hear what they said?”

While it may take some time to get comfortable using “they” as a singular pronoun instead of “he” or “she,” its use is becoming widely accepted, especially in spoken language. Both the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style support the use of “they” as a singular pronoun in instances when gender neutrality is desired.

Learn more about why pronouns matter and how to use them correctly and consciously.

Conscious language leads to more positive outcomes

What we think and say directly leads to the actions we take. The words we use determine our reality. How do we think about and describe ourselves, our lives, our situations, and our surroundings? Is our self-talk helping us or harming us?

Are we negative, complaining, pessimistic, and self-sabotaging? Or are we positive, grateful, optimistic, and self-assured? The language we use to describe ourselves and our lives, whether conscious or unconscious, determines the outcomes we experience.

When we consciously reframe negative into positive our lives can change for the better. Problems become opportunities and failures lead to learning. Conscious language affirms, motivates, and inspires our best.

Use words with the intention to build up yourself and others.

“Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. Whatever choice you make makes you. Choose wisely.” ~ Roy T. Bennett

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