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A language audit for the ‘new normal’

Thoughtful and clear communication can sharpen ideas and activate calls to action. But this requires us to be conscious of our language and the phrases that we popularise, because words that are intended as calls for social change can easily be restrung to subdue our brave ideas and quiet our most urgent social needs.

There was a fleeting moment during the height of the pandemic when our collective conversation was centred around reimagining how much more inclusive our society could be with a purposeful reset. Rapidly though ‘unprecedented times’ waned into an uninspired and understandably exhausted ‘new normal'.

As we wade through this new (nothing is) normal, let’s challenge ourselves to be more intentional about saying what we mean. Staying true to the fabric of our society, the development sector can lead the way in this language audit as it so often leads the way towards social progress.

Development work cannot be simplified for ease of reference

‘Beneficiaries’ tops my list of words and phrases that fail to inspire critical reflection and progress in the development sector. The term refers to people who derive benefit from something. But to describe people who receive funding or services as ‘beneficiaries’ implies a linear process, rather than the organic exchange that exists within the development sector. Funders and service providers are often given unquantifiable and largely unacknowledged opportunities for learning, insight and expansion of their world views – if they are willing to receive them.

Understandably, industry terms can be useful for ease of reference, but jargon in the field of engineering, for example, has far less potential to offend and exclude than in the development sector which directly engages with people about their psychosocial and economic wellbeing. We must guard against language that does not support the core intention to equalise society; language that strips people of the complexities of their individual identities, and extinguishes nuance from their
experiences.

Development work cannot be simplified for ease of reference. It may be fractionally more convenient to talk and write about ‘beneficiaries’, but the potential to broaden understanding of the dynamic exchange that exists in development work when a single word like ‘beneficiaries’ is replaced with a phrase like ‘recipients of funding or social services’ seems more than worth it.

Choose words that build bridges

People who write about the sector should be compelled to give the issues that they are writing about due consideration and to create enough space with their words to allow for multiple identities, truths and experiences. Our words should build bridges between diverse world views, rather than further objectify and entrench power dynamics that exist in the status quo.

The realisation of a more equitable and thriving society is not just dependent on what we do for each other, but on how we make each other feel. In the development sector, let’s honour both – with our actions and our words.

Zyaan Davids | honeq Creative Consulting

Founder and Director, honeq Creative Consulting

Zyaan Davids is the founder of honeq – a strategic communications consultancy that partners with organisations and individuals who are passionate about and committed to social development, to create and share content that inspires reflection, dialogue and action for a more just and equitable society.

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