first slide

Conscious Language Resource0

The Service Oriented Conference is dedicated to fulfilling its mission of offering service-oriented education and connection to people of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, abilities, genders, and identities. We believe that encouraging attendees, presenters, and staff to build intentional language practices is an important part of the inclusive experience the Service Oriented Conference strives to create.

The SOC staff offer this resource to:
  • Provide awareness about intentional, mindful, and conscious language.
  • Share words, phrases, and concepts that can be problematic or harmful to others and why they are harmful to expand awareness on biased language.
  • Offer ideas for building inclusive, conscious language that mitigates harm and exclusion of others.
This is a living document. It will update with time as our understanding of language and its impacts evolve. It does not comprise all the words that carry historical, cultural, or identity-focused harm for people who may attend the Service Oriented Conference. We hope this resource inspires and encourages you to research, explore, and cultivate your own practices of intentional, mindful, and conscious language.
Conscious language the intentional and mindful use of words, phrases, and terms to promote equity, empathy, and inclusion in specific contexts. The goal of conscious language is to ensure our words skillfully convey the tone and meaning we intend, while being aware of those who may engage with our spaces and create welcoming, empathetic, and inclusive environments.

To learn and practice conscious language, we must consider whether our language is biased, problematic, or harmful for some people. We can ask ourselves whether the language we use is harmful to historically excluded communities, whether its history can alter its intended impact, and whether it makes assumptions about our audiences. Words have an impact on our well-being. Not paying attention to the words and phrases we use runs the risk of increasing misrepresentation, exclusion, stigma, and shame. Understanding the impact of the words, phrases, and terms we use can help us be thoughtful in how we frame topics to not perpetuate inequities and stigma in the spaces we share.

Some Areas Where Biased or Harmful Language can Focus:
  • Age
  • Relationships
  • Race, Nationality, or Ethnicity
  • Gender, Sex, or Sexuality
  • Socioeconomic Status, Work, or Profession
  • Health, Ability, or Disability
How it's used: To refer to a person addicted to a particular substance, usually an illegal drug.
Background and Impact: Using this term can reduce the person's experience to a personal choice or moral failing, when in fact substance use disorder is a chronic but treatable disease that people can recover from and go on to lead healthy, fulfilling lives. Using the term has been found to lead to more stigmatizing and punitive perceptions and measures toward those who experience addiction. The term also frames a person by one characteristic or trait, rather than acknowledging the complexity of their individuality, identity, or humanity.
Alternate Terms: Person with a substance use disorder, person with an addiction. Note that while people may use the term addict to refer to themselves, it is best to use person-first language when referring to others with these disorders and experiences.


Elderly and Elderspeak

How they're used: Elderly is used to refer to a person who is older or aging; to refer to an object or machine that is worn or showing signs of age. Elderspeak is used to refer to speaking to older people as one would to a child with limited understanding (e.g. "honey", "sweetie," "dear"; using a loud or singsong tone of voice; referring to them with the general "we" instead of "you").
Background and Impact: The term, "elderly" has been used as a pejorative to deem those who are older as frail and limited. This term reduces or obscures the positives people may gain with aging and the variability people experience physically and mentally as they age. Not all people become frail or experience similar physical or mental limitations as they get older. Elderspeak can come across as disrespectful to those who are older, as it may send a message that the person is incompetent, incapable, or separate from broader society. Elderspeak can lead to decreased self-esteem and depression for those who are older, particularly for those who experience dementia.
Alternative terms: older, us as we age. It is best to only use terms of endearment or pet names if the person explicitly consents to their use.



How it's used: originating or characteristic of a distant foreign country; refers to characteristics or features that are outside typical Western standards of beauty, taste, or aesthetic.
Background and Impact: The term has been used as a way to dehumanize and hypersexualize those with physical features outside Western Eurocentric or White beauty standards. People have experienced compliments or solicitations for sexual and romantic interactions based on their looks being outside the "norm," or stereotypes associated with their physical features. The term exotic is also used to describe distant lands or foods, which adds to the objectification when applied to humans. It also can refer to historical "human zoos" and "Wild West shows" where typically non-white people were put on display or exhibition. The term can be considered a microaggression: a statement or incident of subtle, indirect, or unintentional discrimination against a racial or ethnic minority.



How it's used: This term is often used to describe a person of low class or someone who is acting poorly.
Background and Impact: The term ghetto is a derogatory term for a neighborhood characterized by racial minorities inhabiting the area and has been used to describe neighborhoods where the Jewish People were forced to be segregated from the greater population during World War 2. This term has evolved into judgments of certain mannerisms and behaviors of African American people.
Alternative Terms: uncouth or unpolished


Girl, Boy

How they are used: To refer to children, to refer to adults in a cute or diminutive manner, or as a descriptor for certain behavior (e.g., like a girl/boy)
Background and Impact: Depending on context, referring to adults in these ways can be patronizing. The term girl has been used to describe behaviors, objects, or preferences that are deemed inferior to the ones of boys or men. It also has been used as a way to infantilize adult women. The term boy has additional racial connotations, as Black men were referred to as, "boys" during and after enslavement in North America to emphasize the perception that Black people were considered less human by their White counterparts.
Alternative Terms: person, human, woman, man. Note that these terms are context-dependent, and can be used in negotiated dynamics and situations. Listen to those you're interacting with first about what they want to be called.



How it's used: To cheat, swindle, defraud, or rob someone.
Background and Impact: This term is a shortening of the term, "gypsy," which is a racial slur referring to the Roma/Romani: nomadic peoples whose history traces back to Northwestern India. The Romani have historically been discriminated against in the European countries where they have traveled, and been unfairly stereotyped as cheaters, swindlers, or con people because of the prevalence of this term.
Alternative terms: defraud, conned, cheated


The Itis

How it is used: This term is often used to describe the sleepy feeling you get from consuming too much food, often in times of celebration.
Background and Impact: The term has been shortened from its Caribbean and Jamaican origins into a racial slur that was used in the United States. This term can allude to the stereotype that African Americans are lazy. While this term is still used within African American Communities, it can be seen as offensive when others outside the community use the term to describe gluttonous behavior. This feeling of overeating has also been called Macajuel Syndrome which Macajuel is a West Indian term for a boa constrictor.
Alternative Terms: prandial, meat sweats, stuffed, overeaten


Handicapped, Differently Abled

How they're used: To refer to people with disabilities, or to refer to objects, passes, or spaces that assist with accessibility needs.
Background and Impact: The term handicapped was originally used for horse racing in the late 1800s, when horses were deliberately given a handicap such as weights or a later start time to give their competitors an equal chance at winning. This term was used by sociologists and social workers in the 1900s to consider people with mental or physical differences and their place in society on the whole. During the disability rights movements in the U.S., people with disabilities argued against using the term handicapped in their advocacy for independence and self-determination, preferring the term disabled. Activists argued that society was keeping those with disabilities at a disadvantage, and the term handicapped reinforced non-accessible perceptions and treatment.
The term differently-abled came about around 1980, linked back to the U.S. Democratic National Committee as an alternative to handicapped. The term has since been viewed as condescending, as it can indicate that people with disabilities are an inspiration or heroic when they would prefer to be treated equitably by society.
Alternate Terms: people with disabilities, referring to the specific physical or mental disability. Note that it is best to ask the person themselves how they would prefer to be identified.


Hip Hip Hooray

How it is used: An exclamation of praise, congratulations or celebration.
Background and Impact: The etymology of this term comes from the German "hep hep" which is what shepherds would use to call their sheep back to the pens. During the Holocaust, German citizens started using it as a rallying shout when they would hunt down and kill Jewish citizens. The phrase's anti-Semitic undertones go as far back as 1819 with the Hep Hep riots, a time of both Jewish emancipation from the German Confederation and communal violence against German Jews.
Alternative Terms: Congratulations, Well Done, or Bravo



How they're used: In kink and BDSM, the terms refer to a relationship or situation where a person has power, authority, or control over another in a consensual context. In the fields of technology, engineering, and computer science, the terms refer to situations where one process, entity, or code controls another. The term, "master" is also used in other fields, such as education and real estate, to refer to a large space or elevated knowledge and skill over a subject.
Background and Impact: In technological literature, the terms date back as far as 1904, originally selected to invoke the imagery of, "a free master that did no work and a slave that followed the master's orders," in their description (Eglash, 2007). The terms carry historical weight of oppression, racism, and the unethical practices of slavery. While the terms may allow for the opportunity to examine, confront, or reclaim their historically oppressive connotations in the context of kink and BDSM, there are some BDSM traditions (such as slave auctions and "slave hunts") that have historical precedents in white supremacy. The terms can be problematic when used outside of intentionally chosen relationships and scenes.
Alternate Terms: leader/follower, active/standby, main/secondary, dominant/submissive, controller/responder


Passing (race/ethnicity)

How it's used: Refers to the experience of highlighting or not disclosing a part of one's identity (such as one's race or ethnicity) to blend in or assimilate into a different social group. Also refers to the experience of changing or obscuring one's background and social identifiers to obtain certain societal protections or benefits.
Background and Impact: The privileges of passing come at the costs of oppressive power structures that continue to promote the dominant groups in a society, the alienation some may feel in denying or obscuring certain parts of their identity, and historically, the risk of harm or death if one's race or ethnicity were revealed. The concept of passing can become problematic when those who benefit from their ability to assimilate or obscure their backgrounds deny the privileges it affords them, or when people experience gatekeeping, separation, and animosity when they are seen as unfairly benefitting from racial/ethnic ambiguity.
Alternative terms: It is up to people how they choose to identify themselves. It is up to all of us to continue to break down the legal and social power structures that oppress others based on their skin color, physical features, dialects or mannerisms.


Passing (gender and sexuality)
How it's used: Refers to the experience of highlighting or not disclosing a part of one's identity (such as one's gender or sexuality) to blend in or assimilate into a different social group. Also refers to the experience of changing or obscuring one's background and social identifiers to obtain certain societal protections or benefits. Other words that have been used include stealth, deceptive, fooling, pretending, posing, trap, and masquerading.
Background and Impact: Passing generally refers to a trans person's ability to look and behave in ways that physically and socially align with their cisgender counterparts. It can also refer to a gay, bi, or pan person's ability to align with predominantly heterosexual norms in their relationships. This perpetuates the belief that one's ideal existence should be the ability to assimilate with predominant social groups, and that any experiences counter to that are not meeting a desired goal or objective. It also implies a deception or untruth in one's gender or sexuality, a concept that has led to the discrimination, physical harm, and even death of those deemed impostors when they disclose identities or circumstances outside of cisgender heteronormative ones. The concept of passing can be problematic when it emphasizes cisgender heteronormativity as the societal ideal rather than allowing room and conversation for all genders and sexual orientations (and challenging the societal norms that make not passing harmful and even deadly for some people).
Alternative terms: It is up to people how they choose to identify themselves. It is up to all of us to break down the stigmas and discrimination, legal and social, associated with existing beyond the dominant perspectives of gender and sexuality.



How it's used: As a shorthand for polyamory or polyamorous.
Background and Impact: The concerns with the term came about as late as 2015, when Polynesian Internet users asked other Internet users to stop using poly for tags outside of Polynesian topics on sites like Tumblr. As poly was deemed a shorthand by those in polyamorous communities, as well as a common shorthand for other concepts using the Greek prefix, there has been some debate on the use of poly solely for people in or from Polynesian states, territories, or nations. The most recent conclusions have been that rather than risk obscuring the information and connection Polynesian peoples have using Poly both within their communities and on the Internet at large, another shorthand for polyamory helps relieve any risk of language ambiguity and cultural appropriation.
Alternate terms: polya, polyam, polyamorous, polyamory



How it's used: a conference or meeting for discussion, especially among friends or colleagues; a type of ceremony native to indigenous peoples of North America Background and Impact: A powwow is an event in Native American traditions that typically bring together different communities and tribes to honor their rich heritages through dance, song, and social connection. Referring to a meeting or session outside of these contexts is an example of cultural appropriation; it can trivialize or invalidate the importance of these kinds of ceremonies for the people who practice them.
Alternative terms: meeting, brainstorming session, huddle


Preferred Pronouns

How it's used: When asking what pronouns individuals use, or to share one's own personal pronouns (e.g, "What are your preferred pronouns?", "My preferred pronouns are...")
Background and Impact: Using "preferred" in this context is an outdated practice. The term implies that pronouns other than the ones a person has shared are viable to use, which can lead to invalidation of one's gender and possible misgendering. One's personal pronouns are a fact, not a preference.
Alternate Terms: Pronouns (e.g., "What are your pronouns?", "My pronouns are...")



How it's used: a person or group of people who are blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for convenient reasons.
Background and Impact: The term scapegoat was first used in the 16th century to describe the ritual animals that the Jewish Community placed their sins onto in preparation for Yom Kippur. The term has been used by contemporaries against the Jewish People for thousands of years, including blaming them for plagues, 9/11, and the financial crisis in 2008. Blaming the Jewish Community as well as the Asian Communities still continue throughout the Covid-19 global pandemic.
Alternative Terms: fall guy, victim, and dupe


Spirit Animal

How it's used: an animal, object, or character that represents one's personality or likeness.
Background and Impact: For Indigenous peoples native to the Americas, animals are part of their connection to spiritual practices and environments. The spirit animal is often considered a guide who chooses a person and helps them walk a path of individual healing. Referring to a spirit animal outside of these spiritual and traditional contexts is an example of cultural appropriation: the act of a dominant culture taking elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by the dominant group. In this case, such generalization can trivialize the deep personal beliefs held by Indigenous peoples.
Alternative terms: kindred spirit, reason for living, muse, familiar


The Autistic/People with Autism

How it's used: To refer to someone on the autism spectrum
Background and Impact: While many doctors, journalists, and parents of autistic children have used person-first language for people on the autism spectrum, autistic people generally prefer to use identity-first language to refer to themselves. Autism is a neurodivergent condition that impacts how they experience the world. Using person-first language, activists argue, stigmatizes autistic people by separating the person from the condition and implies that someone struggles from and could recover from autism. Autistic people prefer to embrace autism as a core, unchanging part of their identity through identity-first language.
Alternate Terms: Autistic person. Note that people may want to use person-first or identity-first terms. Listen to the people first as to how they want to identify themselves.



How it's used: relating to or denoting a person whose gender doesn't correspond to their sex assigned at birth. Similar terms include transgenders, a transgender, transvestite, or tranny.
Background and Impact: These are outdated terms to refer to trans people. Using the noun form instead of the adjective descriptor is not only grammatically and stylistically inaccurate, but puts the identity before the person, which can be distancing or othering. The term transgendered can imply that someone has changed in some way to become who they are, when one does not need to medically or physically transition to be transgender. The terms also imply that something happened to make a person that way, instead of honoring that is part of who they are and have been.
Alternative Terms: Trans or transgender person, woman, man. Note that while some trans people may choose to refer to themselves with these outdated terms, it is best to not refer to others using them.



How it's used: a category of human social group; to create connection among a group of people with like-minded perceptions of the world; a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.
Background and Impact: This anthropological term has been used as a way to stereotype groups in various parts of the world, including those native to the Americas and Africa, as primitive or savage. It undermines the sovereignty, progress, and complexities of these nations, many of which have been historically and systematically oppressed or exploited by Western nations and cultures.
Alternative Terms: family, team, support system, community



How it's used: to describe someone or their behavior as presumptuous, self-important, or arrogant
Background and Impact: This has been used as a term for African Americans or Black people who were perceived as not knowing their place in society, particularly in the southern United States. In the early 20th century, Black people who defied white expectations of deference were deemed "uppity," or "insolent." This term was often coupled with other racial slurs, and could result in acts of violence toward these individuals.
Alternative terms: presumptuous, self-important, haughty, vain


Mental/Physical Health Diagnoses Used Out of Context

How they're used: To refer to actions or characteristics of a person, object, or circumstance. (e.g., "The weather is bipolar; it's raining one minute then sunny the next,"; "My dog is such a spaz!"; "I am so OCD I like my clothes color coordinated and neatly folded."; "They're fashion sense is schizophrenic.")
Background and Impact: Using offensive terms for mental health diagnoses, or using mental or physical health diagnoses outside of situations where one has received a proper diagnosis, can lead to stigma of those who experience mental or physical health disorders. Often these terms used out of context are either inaccurate depictions of these illnesses, or minimize the ways the symptoms of these illnesses impact people's lives. Using these terms inappropriately and outside a proper diagnosis can also discourage people from seeking help for behaviors or concerns where a diagnosis could offer them the proper care and support they need. The stigma promotes perceptions that people need to handle undiagnosed symptoms on their own, which can contribute to detrimental self-medicative behaviors or self-harm.
Alternate Terms: See the references below for examples.

These concepts are commonly but not solely useful in conversations around ability, neurodivergence, physical health, and mental health.

Person-first descriptors put the person before a mental or physical health condition. Using them acknowledges that the condition does not define the person. (Ex. A person living with diabetes rather than a diabetic; A person with a disability rather than a disabled person)

Identity-first descriptors acknowledge that some physical or mental health conditions may be inextricably linked to a person and how they live in the world. (Ex. A deaf person, rather than a person with deafness; an autistic person rather than a person with autism)

Empathy-first descriptors can reduce bias or stigma and promote empathy. (Ex. A person who contracted HIV rather than a person infected with HIV; A higher incidence of stroke rather than a risk factor for stroke.)

In general practice, person-first descriptors are preferable to identity-first descriptors for intentional language. For example, take the person-first term, "person who uses a wheelchair," versus the identity-first descriptor, "wheelchair bound." People who use wheelchairs are not "bound" or "confined" to them; the chairs are a tool they use to increase their mobility. In some cases, it might be their only method to do so, but it also might not be. Thus, "person who uses a wheelchair," encompasses these many and varying experiences.

While person-first language may be more inclusive generally, it may not always be preferred. Listen to those with lived experience on whether they prefer person-first or identity-first descriptors. Practice empathy-first language wherever possible.

There are four types of listening:
  • Empathic listening - listening to understand
  • Appreciative listening - listening for enjoyment or entertainment
  • Comprehensive listening - listening to learn something new
  • Critical listening - listening to form an opinion

Active listening is a form of empathic listening. Active listening can help build strong relationships, gain deeper understanding of others, and help deepen our capacity for empathy.

Steps to practice active listening:
  • Paraphrase - Restate someone's thoughts out loud to make sure you have heard them correctly.
  • Ask questions - Ask clarifying or open-ended questions to encourage someone to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings
  • Express empathy - Validate someone's feelings rather than questioning or defending against them. Consider why someone may feel the way they do when responding to what they are saying.
  • Use engaged body language - Focus your body on the person speaking. Avoid distractions and be mindful of facial expressions.
  • Avoid judgment - Avoid interrupting the other person or thinking of a rebuttal while they are speaking.
  • Avoid giving advice - Problem-solving can be more effective after understanding one another's perspective and feeling heard.
  • Take turns - After listening to the person, ask if you can share your perspective. Use "I" statements to share your thoughts and feelings.

Decentering is the practice of not seeing issues from our sole perspective and experience, and considering others' worldviews and experiences.

Here are some strategies for decentering yourself in conversations:
  • Reflect before you react - Pause and reflect internally when listening to a larger conversation.
  • Sit in discomfort - If discomfort arises when learning about experiences of oppression, sit with the discomfort and ask internally why you feel that way.
  • Avoid tone policing - Give space for people to authentically share their lived experience
  • Explore diverse content - Explore a range of perspectives from people of different backgrounds. Be thoughtful about the media you consume.
  • Pass the microphone - Find ways to highlight individuals directly affected by the issues. Elevate their platform to help spread awareness.
  • Do not force it - People who are marginalized do not owe anyone their time or labor. Take cues from those in your space on whether to take action or offer support.
  • Give yourself grace - This is an ongoing process and mistakes will be made.

Implicit bias, also known as unconscious bias, refers to stereotypes and attitudes that affect our decisions, actions, and understanding in unconscious ways. We can make favorable or unfavorable assessments based on these involuntary biases without our knowledge or control. We typically hold implicit biases that are favorable to groups we identify as being a part of. Implicit biases are pervasive; they impact our perceptions and judgments even if they don't align with our expressed beliefs or stances, and even when we strive for impartiality. Implicit biases are also malleable and can be gradually unlearned through de-biasing techniques.

Here are some types of implicit biases:
  • Affect heuristic - the tendency to rely on emotions to make decisions
  • Affinity bias - also known as the similarity bias; the tendency to favor people who share similar backgrounds, interests, and experiences
  • Confirmation bias - the tendency to seek out or use information that confirms our own views and expectations
  • Gender bias - unconsciously associating certain stereotypes with different genders
  • Halo effect - the tendency to create an overall positive impression of someone because of one of their qualities or traits
  • Name bias - a tendency to prefer certain names over others, particularly anglo-sounding names
  • Perception bias - the tendency to judge or treat others based on general stereotypes or assumptions about the group they belong to.

Here are some ways to mitigate implicit bias:
  • Think of counter-stereotypic examples. Identify people of diverse backgrounds in your field.
  • Practice perspective-taking. Imagine what it's like to be a person who is questioned for their ability because of their social identity.
  • Interrupt automatic biased thoughts. Create an action plan to increase mindfulness of or mitigate the influence of implicit bias in situations when you may be most influenced by it.
  • Join or set up implicit-bias workshops in your spaces to increase awareness and education.

This resource was written by Inquisitive Elle and AJ ter Kuile. It was reviewed by SOC Staff: Nixa, AnguisetteKitfox, slave joy, blueberry. Last update in 2023.