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InfoQ Homepage News Promoting Empathy and Inclusion in Technical Writing

Promoting Empathy and Inclusion in Technical Writing

Empathy is the first step in practicing sustainable, genuine inclusion. If persons or groups of people feel unwelcome because of the language being used in a community, its products, or documentation, then the words can be changed. Identifying divisive language can help to make changes to the words that we use.

Eliane Pereira and Josip Vilicic, both technical writers, spoke about promoting inclusion in documentation at OOP 2022.

Empathy is a conscious practice where we listen to each other and try to feel what they are feeling, Vilicic said. This allows a person to relate to someone else’s experience, even if it’s unfamiliar.

Pereira mentioned that empathy is the key to understanding how others feel in certain situations, even if the situation does not impact you. A word can be just a word for you, but the same word can impact your coworkers and make the work environment unsafe for them.

It takes empathy and willingness to make changes so that everyone feels included, as Pereira explained:

For example, in the engineering field, master/slave is a model of asymmetric communication or control where one device or process, "master", controls one or more other devices or processes, the "slaves". For a descendant of slaves who decides to contribute to a project, the perceived racial connotations associated with the terms, invoking slavery, is terrible.

Vilicic mentioned that the most important thing is having support from the top decision-makers in an organization in improving the language. Once there is ideological support, the difficulty of the journey is less important, because we know we have a good goal in mind: improving the language so it doesn’t harm our community, he said.

By using inclusive language, we give everyone the opportunity to be themselves, Pereira argued. We can ensure that we are not using expressions that can be punitive, or make people feel rejected or embarrassed for what they are, she said.

InfoQ interviewed Eliane Pereira and Josip Vilicic about promoting empathy and inclusion in documentation.

InfoQ: What role does empathy play when it comes to inclusion?

Josip Vilicic: If someone says that they are being illegitimately excluded from a community, and the community says this is unintentional, there is a conflict.

Conflict is not inherently bad… but we can respond to conflict in a destructive (defensive or aggressive) manner, or in a constructive (empathetic) manner. If the community actively listens, does not deny the experience that the excluded group shares, and does not want to perpetuate harm, then the only choice left is for the community to fix the inequality through inclusion.

InfoQ: What can be done to encourage and support people in changing the language?

Eliane Pereira: Speak up to show that changes are needed. Listen if you think that some changes are not needed. People are used to the harmful language being present in their daily lives to the point that, when they are asked to change, they will say, "This has been here forever, we don’t need to change it, it is just a word".

That is why we need to explain why we need those words to be replaced, so people can be aware that those are not just words, but a way to communicate something and sometimes, this something can be derogatory to someone.

InfoQ: How can the use of inclusive language increase psychological safety?

Vilicic: Using inclusive language signals to the audience that we are moving forward in a way that is sensitive, intentional, and kind. This can make teammates feel like they are in a supportive environment, where they can speak freely and they won’t be rejected.

No matter what our professional efforts are, we’re a group of imperfect people working towards a shared goal. When we base our interactions around respecting each other’s humanity, we allow each other to collaborate towards amazing things.

Pereira: Some words have a connotation for us, but for others, can be a pain point in their lives. For example, saying you have ADHD to express you are having difficulties concentrating in your work can make a colleague who actually has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to feel embarrassed or afraid that they are labelled as a worker with inability to perform their job. That is why we think that it is important to avoid metaphors in expressing yourself. Saying you are unable to concentrate on work on that day is clear enough.

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