Five Questions with Amy Agarwal, Engenderhealth’s Principal Writer, Editor, and Designer

Amy Agarwal brings more than 20 years of professional experience working in the global health and international development space and conceptualizing, researching, writing, and editing an array of communications and development materials. In addition to authoring compelling, complex narratives in a breadth of technical areas, she brings expertise in gender equity and social inclusion and has led gender integration strategies, facilitated gender and development trainings, and authored equity and inclusivity resources.

Amy has been a core member of EngenderHealth’s communications department since 2019 and currently serves as the organization’s Principal Writer, Editor, and Designer. She leads EngenderHealth’s language refresh initiative, which aims to ensure the language we use is accurate, nonjudgmental, destigmatizing, and inclusive of the diversity of our partners and impact populations. Through this initiative, she has coauthored a series of language guides and has designed and facilitated sensitization sessions focusing on inclusive and respectful language. Amy recently authored a new language resource entitled Inclusive, Respectful Language: Top 20 Frequently Asked Questions. In this blog, we summarize a few of those questions and answers, but we encourage you to review the complete answers and full list of questions!

Why does thinking about language matter?

The words we choose and the language we use have the power to affect the people and the world around us. Our words represent our beliefs, morals, prejudices, and principles—and can shape an audience’s perceptions of us as well as the issues about which we speak and write. In other words, the words you use are a reflection of you and will affect how others perceive you. At the individual level, language affects how we engage with people in personal encounters; however, at an institutional, systemic, and policy level, language can affect the lives of communities and populations for generations. 

Is using inclusive and respectful language important for daily life?

Inclusive language is an important part of daily life insomuch as interacting with other human beings is a part of daily life. Any time you engage with others—whether you are chatting with a family member, texting a friend, emailing a coworker, or posting on social media—you are using language, and that language may be inclusive and respectful or not. 

Can you just give me a list of things not to say and what to say instead?

The idea of “correct” and “incorrect” or “right” and “wrong” would certainly make things easier, but unfortunately, that is not how language works. Language is always evolving and, when we are talking about people, the affected population’s preferences should take precedence and individual preferences may contradict group norms and standards. But perhaps most importantly, the concept of absolutes perpetuates the idea that being inclusive and respectful is a simple, impersonal task, when the exact opposite is true: language is deeply personal.

What if I make a mistake?

Mistakes happen. Whereas language is constantly evolving, mistakes are the constant. If you find yourself making a mistake, I recommend addressing the mistake with three simple steps: (1) acknowledge the mistake, (2) sincerely and swiftly apologize, and (3) commit to doing better in the future. In the end, no one is perfect, just as language is imperfect, and the only true failure is the refusal to learn and improve.

How do I learn more about or become better with this stuff?

There are many ways to continue to learn and each person should think about what will work best for themself. You can read one of our language guides or research style guides produced by organizations with expertise in the subject area or areas in which you are interested. Reading is also a great way to enhance empathy, so find authors from different communities and explore the worlds they create in their stories or share in their works. Alternatively, listen to songs by artists from different cultures or watch some movies written and produced by and featuring groups you’re eager to learn more about. If you know of others interested in learning more, find opportunities to learn together and share your learnings. Find ways to make the learning enjoyable for you—and remember, practice makes progress!