Inclusive Language in Your Surveys

For a long time I have written questionnaires using the philosophy that a survey is a conversation done at scale. For that reason, the language of a survey is extremely important. (And by that, I don't mean the language as in English or French, as important as that is, rather the use of language.)  Have you experienced a conversation where non-inclusive use of language made things awkward? I have. And I can tell you, it is neither fun nor productive. 

Thank you to Wilhelm Gunkel for putting this great shot on Unsplash. And by the way, the translation of the German alles Gute! is All is well.

When you use inclusive language in a questionnaire, you create better engagement with respondents. Engaged respondents are more likely to stick with the survey. How is that? Because inclusive language subtly conveys to them that you care about them, and thus, it transfers into the perception that you care about what they have to say to you. When a respondent believes they are being listened to, it motivates and engages far better than any monetary incentive.

Conversely, when non-inclusive language is used, you risk losing respondents that feel excluded, devalued or alienated.

So what are some practical ways to improve language inclusivity in your questionnaires?

Overarching Rules

In my opinion, there are two overarching rules that will help you use more inclusive language.

1: Avoid value judgements

When describing people, insensitive, exclusive language makes a value judgement. For example, “disabled” indicates that a person is deficient in some way--not able to do things “normal” people can. Instead of adjectives, focus on tools, needs, behavior. Avoid making assumptions. For example, rather than “what disability does your service animal help with?” consider something more like “what specific function does your service animal provide to you?” And avoid qualifiers such as “suffers from” or is afflicted with. A person simply has lupus. It is a value judgement to say that they suffer from lupus.

2: Be relevant and actionable

Make questions where you deal with inclusive topics are both relevant and actionable

Sometimes we simply include questions on race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc., because we always have. I cannot count the surveys that have included ethnicity in the demographics for products or services where in no way was ethnicity even relevant. Household income often falls into the same category.

3: When in doubt, research

If you are not sure about how to make your language more inclusive around a specific topic, research it out. There are a number of guides out there to inclusive language, including government and journalistic guides. Or, if you know someone that is in the group of people you are writing about, ask them.

Some guides:

Here are some more specific ideas around making your questionnaire (or discussion guide) language more inclusive

Grandmothers Are Not Novices

In quant and qual, a favorite practice has been to have respondents describe a product to their grandmother. (“It’s so easy your grandmother can use it!”) Just don’t. Not cool. In fact, don’t use women or older people of any sort as proxies for novices. The fact is, a grandmother likely helped build the technology you use today. (I am actually a grandfather. And I was the first to use a bulletin board for online research and was a co-founder of what became Qualboards.) Age or gender are irrelevant when it comes to intellect or ability. Think about changing it to “how would you describe this to someone from another planet?” or “how would you describe this to someone who has never seen this before?”

Old is Relative

I get mail from the AARP (American Association of Retired People) and I have once gotten a senior discount (for the lift on the continental divide, woot!). But I would not identify myself as a Senior or as elderly. Nor do I consider myself old. Older than a 40 year-old, sure. Older than my children, definitely. But old people and Seniors are, to me, a good 20 years older than I am. That perception of old probably holds true for a twenty year-old who likely looks at anyone above 30 as old, or a 30 year-old who considers anyone in their fifties as old. Old is relative. So instead, be specific. Use actual age ranges or age cut-offs. Define old or older internally, but don’t refer to it explicitly in a survey.

Gender Bias is So 60s


This is easy. Instead of using he or she (and their related pronouns), use they and them. Once you have done this a few times, it comes naturally. Trust me.

Of course, if the person you are referring to is definitely and relevantly a she or a he, then go ahead and use the gendered pronouns. But be double, no triple, sure that this is both the actual case and relevant.

No One is Disabled

I am left-handed. That used to be considered a liability. I am short-sighted. And pigeon-toed. While those traits definitely present challenges to my abilities to do some things (you don’t want to see me run, that’s for sure), I would never describe them as disabilities. How I feel about these is exactly how someone missing a hand, has Downs, or who has diabetes, feels about that. What we traditionally call a disability is simply a difference. Just ask Jim Abbot. Missing a hand didn’t make him unable to play baseball; it just made him a different player.

If a medical condition, illness, or injury is relevant to the survey, talk about it in specific terms. And avoid verbs and adjectives that create value judgments. For example, people do not “suffer” and are not “afflicted” with lupus. They have lupus. They are not confined to a wheelchair. They use a wheelchair to get around. Their circumstances around having a chronic disease are not your place to judge or create a perception of in the questionnaire. In fact, that creates a bias in the information you will collect, towards the negative.

Around what we consider disabilities, it is a good idea to research out how people that have them identify themselves.

Race, Ethnicity, or Heritage?

I really dislike the overuse of the “ethnicity/race” question in surveys. I see major ways it is just wrong.

The most obvious is in the answer choices. Nine times out of ten, it is set up as a single choice. Where do you check if you are of mixed race or ethnicity? Check boxes should be the default.

Another problem is that the options often are not appropriate equivalents. White and Black are skin color--race. Asian or Hispanic identify countries of origin. Are you asking about race or ethnicity? I personally just avoid race--because it is not related to culture or specific needs most of the time. And because a large percentage of White people do not know what the choice Caucasian means. (How many times have I seen Other checked and someone writes in “American” or “Irish”--ugh.) Decide what you need as relevant--is it race, ethnic heritage, religion, country of origin or cultural living circumstances? Then make sure the choices are equivalents.

And make sure the choices are how someone actually identifies themselves. Did you know that Hispanic is a term created by the Census years ago? It is not how someone who is “Hispanic” identifies themself. And using the term Oriental is derogatory in American culture, and Asian is really too broad. I once conducted a qualitative study on “Asian-inspired” frozen food. In the recruit were participants who identified themselves as Asian. But the relevance of their perspective on the food at hand--and it was relevant--was specific to which country their family originated from and how many generations in this country they represented. A second-generation Chinese person reacted very differently to specific flavors and packaging than did a second-generation Japanese person or a fourth generation Chinese person. It is often more about their specific cultural circumstances than it is about country of origin, race or ethnicity.

That brings up the third issue to address. Relevancy. Why does an organic protein bar company need to know the ethnic identity of survey takers? Check yourself before automatically including the question to make sure it is even relevant. I would say that the test of relevance for this type of question is whether someone might value or use your product differently in their cultural circumstances. And is that directly applicable to the objectives of the research. I would consider one acid test of the relevance of this question is whether you need to screen on this. Then it is likely relevant. Or if you will take different actions based on insights derived from different ethnic groups. (And not just the standby excuse of representing groups in advertising. You should be inclusive in your advertising anyway.)

Gender identity is not two choices

Too often, the gender question is only about the two obvious choices. I have found in the last couple years that offering alternate options at least includes those who identify themselves in other ways than simply male or female. You can make it as simple as a third choice that is Non-binary or a comprehensive set of options including transgender, cisgender, etc. Do keep in mind that this question is typically about gender, not sexuality. If you are asking about sexuality (or gender for that matter) make sure it is relevant and then don’t mix and match the answer the options.

The best rules of all to make your survey language more inclusive are to be more deliberate in your writing and to get in the habit of being more inclusive in all aspects of your life. Then the questionnaire writing will come naturally.