Author: Jenny Finnerman, LCSW, Associate Director of Clinical Learning and Development
By now, you have likely noticed the abundance of festive holiday décor filling the aisles of your local stores. ‘Tis the Season!’ they say. As we know, November and December are filled with numerous holidays, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and more. Many folks relish the opportunity to pull out their cozy sweaters, dust off their decorations, whip up an old family recipe, and settle into the winter spirit. While many people find the holidays to be comforting, joyous, and nostalgic, others report increased feelings of depression, stress, isolation, and grief.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays.
This occurs for many reasons, including time constraints, financial burdens, and family or social conflict — most of which feel out of our control or challenging to mitigate. However, one of the things that are in our control is our language and communication. Using affirmative and inclusive language with our loved ones and others around the holidays (and all year, for that matter) is a simple and tangible way to help people feel a sense of belonging and decrease feelings of stress and isolation, as well as potential conflict.
What does Affirmative & Inclusive Mean, and Why Do These Terms Matter?
Affirmative: (adj) Supportive, hopeful, or encouraging.
Inclusive: (adj) Not excluding any of the parties or groups involved in something.
Being affirmative and inclusive means creating an environment where all individuals feel safe, welcomed, heard, and seen. It means encouraging people to show up as their authentic selves and supporting them when they do. One straightforward way to do this is through our language. Inclusive and affirmative language communicates our values and positively furthers social and cultural diversity. People feel included and validated when we adopt the correct words and avoid using assumptive, exclusionary, or offensive language.
You may be thinking to yourself, “Why would I need to worry about social and cultural diversity within my own family?” The answer is that it still exists! Although family members can share similar social and cultural identities, such as being a Chicagoan, Italian, or healthcare professional, there are countless ways in which identities may differ, like age, gender identity, sexual orientation, health status, religion, race, and political affiliation.
In the spirit of being inclusive, plenty of people spend time with others outside of their nuclear family, including friends, in-laws, co-workers, and chosen family members. No matter who we choose to surround ourselves with during the holidays, chances are we’ll spend time with people who hold a variety of identities and world views. Let’s show those people we respect and care for them using inclusive and affirmative language.
How to Use Affirmative & Inclusive Language with Friends and Family
Sexual Orientation and Gender ID
Heteronormative and binary language can invalidate a person's identity and relationships, even if that is not the intention. Using heteronormative or binary language assumes that everyone is heterosexual and *cisgender. Using terms like husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, and he/she can leave LGBTQAI+ folks feeling excluded and uncomfortable. Instead, use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language and pronouns when you don't know the gender of whom you are speaking to or about. This is especially important when interacting with young people who may not have established their sexual orientation or gender identity with friends or family.
For example, before asking your niece who is home from college if she’s found a boyfriend, consider using words that would include and affirm all sexual orientations and gender identities, like partner or significant other – or ask if she is dating.
*A person whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth.
A Note to Parents/Caregivers on Pronouns and Gender Identity
If pronouns and gender identity have been discussed with your child, talk to them beforehand about how to best support them at family gatherings. While some young people find it extremely important to inform friends and family of their chosen name and personal pronouns, others find added attention to it more distressing than helpful. Some questions to consider:
- What name and pronouns would you like to use at family and social gatherings?
- How would you like your name and pronouns communicated to others? - Ahead of time? In the moment? Share in a group setting?
- Would you like support in correcting others who misuse your name or pronouns? - If so, how would you like me to support this?
Mental Health Challenges and Diagnoses
Mental health challenges have been and continue to be a significant public health concern for people in the U.S. According to NAMI, each year, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 children experience a mental health disorder. That said, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll be passing the gravy to at least one person who is impacted by a mental health condition.
We’ve become accustomed to hearing about and discussing mental health, but we sometimes miss the mark regarding our vernacular. More and more, people are talking about emotions hyperbolically and flippantly, using mental health terms to describe common behaviors or feelings.
Terms like “Bipolar,” “OCD,” and “ADHD” are descriptors of real psychiatric conditions. They are not intended to be metaphors for everyday behaviors or emotions. If your younger sibling must ensure the peas don’t touch the mashed potatoes, they are probably particular or fussy, not diagnosed with OCD. If your uncle is devastated by the Bears’ hopeless passing offense, he’s most likely not clinically depressed; he’s just a Bears fan.
A patient recently described her experience of hearing others talk about mental health:
“When people say they’re bipolar or OCD or something like that when they actually don’t have that, it just invalidates all of my struggles and everything I have to go through because I actually have to live with that diagnosis every day and you have no idea how hard it is.”
If there is a need to discuss legitimate mental health conditions, do so with kindness and acceptance. Remember that mental health conditions are a part of life and are not shameful or embarrassing.
Try using language that recognizes the feeling that the person gave you rather than labeling their behavior. If you think someone is misusing a mental health term to describe someone’s behavior, emotions, or personality, try asking them, “What do you mean by that?” to encourage them to use more specific language.
Culture, Race, Ethnicity, and Physical Descriptors
If your family is anything like mine, a good chunk of holiday gatherings is often spent telling nonsensical stories and sharing humorous anecdotes about the monotony of daily life. As any good storyteller will say, the more details, the better! Feel free to embellish them while you're at it!
Typically, that would be my philosophy, but the thing about details is that they should serve a purpose. It’s tempting to include every type of descriptor of a person you’re referring to. Still, we must pause to evaluate if such details inadvertently reinforce racist or discriminatory thinking. Sometimes, adding a description of a person’s race, culture, ethnicity, or physical appearance can further perpetuate harmful stereotypes about a group of people.
A general rule of thumb is to utilize nouns and leave out adjectives and descriptors about a person or group of people when they’re unnecessary or irrelevant to the context. This is particularly true when referring to the racial or ethnic background of a person or people. If the racial or ethnic background of a person or people is relevant to the discussion, avoid emphasizing the differences between the groups.
Do not use umbrella terms if you need to describe where someone is from. Avoid referring to people as Hispanic, Asian, African, and Caribbean when you could say their country of origin.
Our Words Matter
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, I hope it’s that our words matter. Many things are out of our control, but how we communicate with others through our language is not one of them. I hope you consider using affirmative and inclusive language this holiday season to make all your guests, friends, and family feel safe, welcomed, and seen.
When someone around you is not using affirmative and inclusive language, it’s important not to ignore it, even if the language is not directed toward you. You can be an upstander or ally by learning about how to practice affirmative and inclusive language and then speak up against problematic language in a non-confrontational way. You can also share this article with your friends and family to help prepare them for fostering safe and inclusive gatherings this holiday season.
Having difficult conversations with family and loved ones can be challenging. Knowing the reasons why using affirmative and inclusive language is essential can help navigate those discussions.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health symptoms this holiday season, we encourage you to reach out to a professional for support.
- How to Ask for Mental Health Help
- Navigating Mental Health During the Holidays: Coping Ahead and Cultivating Support
- How Do I Know Which Type of Mental Health Treatment is Right for Me? | A Clinician’s Guide to Understanding Levels of Care
- Three Ways to Identify Emotions to Help Navigate Your Feelings | A Clinician's Guide for Improved Mental Health