The Importance of Gender-Neutral Language for Customer Service

Attitudes toward what constitutes good customer service are always changing, because they are rooted in a culture that is always changing. Today, companies find themselves having to think about how they present themselves in entirely new ways, because today’s consumer is no longer willing to consider the purchase decisions they make as being separate from their personal ethics. In a time when we are undergoing a rapid culture shift, this means companies must consider the ways they present themselves to avoid losing customers.

Today, people want to do business with companies that share their values, and at the forefront of this trend are Millennials, who, contrary to their reputation for self-centered entitlement, place more importance on corporate citizenship and giving back than previous generations. Despite having less money, Millennials are the most likely to give to charity, as compared to 72% of Baby Boomers and 59% of Generation X.

Given Millennial attitudes toward charity, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a large majority of Millennials – nearly 70% – take a company’s values into account when making purchases. However, it would be inaccurate to say that only Millennials are driving this trend; more than half of Gen X consumers evaluate company values during purchases. And while Baby Boomers are the least likely to consider corporate values, currently 4 in 10 Younger Boomers and a third of Older Boomers take company values into account

This growing values-sensitivity means companies need to consider how they are engaging with consumers to avoid offending customers and losing business.  One of the biggest of these issues is a growing sensitivity to gender equity and a desire for gender-neutral products and services. 

The growing importance of gender-neutral interactions

In 2016, the American Dialect Society nominated the singular ‘they’ as their Word of The Year. In October of 2017, allegations against Harvey Weinstein ignited the #metoo movement, which continues to shake up conversations about gender and gendered violence; all of this is taking place against the backdrop of a dramatic demographic shift.

Elder Millennials are now 37 and are raising families of their own. Meanwhile, as of 2015, Generation Z makes up 25% of the US population, making them a larger demographic than Baby Boomers. These younger generations hold considerably different attitudes about gender, and place a high importance on gender equity:

  • A survey by GLAAD found that 12% of surveyed Millennials identified either as transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming – meaning they don’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, or their gender expression is “different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity”.
  • When surveyed, 56% of Generation Z respondents said they knew someone who used third-gender pronouns such as “they/them”.
  • 38% of Generation Z respondents “strongly agreed that gender did not define a person as much as it used to”.

For trans and non-binary people, misgendering – having gendered assumptions or terms applied to them that do not reflect their true gender – can be hurtful as well as offensive

And given that Generation Z is set to account for 40% of US consumers by 2020, trans, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming people are a market segment that is only going to continue to grow.

This shift has already been recognized by some corporations and government agencies, including:

  • Service Canada: This government agency, which handles such programs as unemployment benefits, directed its employees in 2018 to avoid gendered forms of address. These new policies were issued “as a matter of respect”, after receiving “requests from members of the public who criticized Service Canada for a lack of inclusivity”. 

    Language to be avoided includes gendered salutations such as “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, and “Ms.”, as well as other language that assumes gender or relationship status. The aim of the directive was to avoid “portraying a perceived bias toward a particular sex or gender”.  Instead of assuming, workers are to use either a client’s name, or to ask how they would prefer to be addressed.
  • Victorian State Government: The Australian state of Victoria issued a similar directive, which also included a “They Day” the first Wednesday of every month to raise awareness of third-gender pronouns.
  • Qantas: One of Australia’s most popular airlines issued guidelines in 2018 directing employees to avoid terms such as “husband” and “wife” that assume heterosexual relationship status. The directive also instructs employees to avoid terms like “‘mum and dad’ [which] can make many families feel excluded — both same-sex couples and single-parent families.” Instead, employees are being encouraged to use terms like “partner”, “spouse”, and “parent” to not discriminate against LGBTQ+ families.

While it’s true that gender-neutral language can be challenging to get used to, the continuing demographic shift means that language that doesn’t focus on gender is only to grow more important to customers who are looking to feel valued by the companies they do business with.

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About the Author: Anna Kreider