3.2 The Impact of Language

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how naming and identity can influence perceptions.
  • Describe how language can impact affiliation with others through convergence or divergence.
  • Describe bias and how it may be expressed in sexist and racist language.

You can see that language influences how we make sense of the world. This section will teach how language can impact our perceptions and behaviour. To be effective communicators, we must understand how language can be significant and instrumental.

Naming and Identity

New parents or guardians typically spend a great deal of time trying to pick the right name for their newborn. We know that names can impact other people’s perceptions (Lieberson, 2000). Our names impact how we feel and how we behave. For instance, if you heard that someone was named Stacy, you might think that person was female, pleasant, and friendly, and you would be surprised if that person turned out to be male, mean, and aggressive.

People with unusual names tend to have more emotional distress than those with common names (Christenfeld & Larsen, 2008). Names impact our identity because others may typically have negative perceptions of unusual names or unique spellings of names. Names can change over time and can gain acceptance. For instance, Madison was not even considered a female first name until the movie Splash became popular in the 1980s (Weingarten, 2003).

Some names are very distinctive, which also makes them memorable and recognizable. Think about musical artists or celebrities with unique names. It helps you remember them and distinguish that person from others.

Some names encompass a cultural or ethnic identity. In Freakonomics, the authors showed a relationship between names and socioeconomic status (Levitt & Dubner, 2005). They discovered that a popular name usually starts with families with high socioeconomic status and then becomes popular with lower socioeconomic families. Hence, it is very conceivable to determine the socioeconomic status of people you associate with based on their birth date and name. Popular names for girls and boys, and how their ranking has changed over the years, are readily found on baby name websites and lists.


When we want others to associate with or be affiliated with us, we might change how we speak and our words. All of those things can impact how other people relate to us. That interest also increased when potential romantic partners employed the same word choices regarding pronouns and prepositions. At the same time, relationship duration for couples that used similar word choices when texting each other was significantly increased. This study implies that we often inadvertently mimic other people’s use of language when we focus on what they say.

If you have been in a romantic relationship for an extended period, you might create special expressions, jargon, or nicknames for the other person. That specialized vocabulary can create greater closeness and understanding. The same type of thinking occurs for groups in a gang or persons in the military. If we adapt to the other person’s communication style (converge), we also impact perceptions of affiliation. Research has shown that people with similar speech have more positive feelings for each other. However, speech can also work in the opposite direction when we diverge or communicate differently. For instance, an English-speaking group from another culture might speak a different dialect or language among themselves rather than English to create distance and privacy from others.

Biased Language

Before discussing the concepts of sexism and racism, we must understand the term “bias.” Bias is an attitude that is not objective or balanced, is prejudiced, and includes the use of words that intentionally or unintentionally offend people or express an unfair attitude concerning a person’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability, or illness.

Biased language shows preference in favour of or against a certain point of view, prejudice, or demeaning of others (Poteat & DiGiovanni, 2010). Biased language is uneven or unbalanced. Bias has a way of creeping into our daily language use, often needing more awareness. Culturally biased language can refer to one or more cultural identities, including race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and ability. Much biased language is based on stereotypes and myths, both cultural and individual, that influence the words we use. Bias is intentional and unintentional; sometimes, we do not even realize our words communicate a particular bias, and we do not intend to offend others. However, because others may decode a message differently from what we intend, as competent communicators, we must be aware of how others may interpret (or misinterpret) our words, the biases we may be intentionally or unintentionally communicating, and how our word choice can affect others. While it is unlikely that we will ever eliminate bias from our verbal communication, it is important to be aware and reflective of our communication. There are five types of biases inherent in a language people use: race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and ableness.


People sometimes use euphemisms for race that illustrate bias because the terms are usually implicitly compared to the dominant group (American Psychological Association (APA), 2020). For example, referring to a person as “urban” or a neighbourhood as “inner city” can be an accurate descriptor. Still, when such words are used as a substitute for racial identity, they illustrate cultural biases that equate certain races with cities and poverty. Using adjectives such as articulate or well-dressed in statements like “My Black coworker is articulate” reinforces negative stereotypes even though these words are typically viewed as positive. Terms like non-White set whiteness as the norm, implying that White people are the norm against which all other races should be compared.

Biased language also reduces the diversity within certain racial groups — for example, referring to anyone who looks of Asian descent as Chinese or everyone who “looks” Latino as Mexican. Some people with racial identities other than White, including people who are multiracial, use the label person or people of colour to indicate solidarity among groups. However, they will likely prefer a more specific label when referring to an individual or referencing a specific racial group.


Language tends to exaggerate perceived and stereotypical differences between men and women. For example, the term opposite sex presumes that men and women are opposites. Other words reflect the general masculine bias present in English. The following word pairs show the gender-biased term followed by an unbiased term: waitress/server, chairman/chair or chairperson, mankind/humankind, cameraman/camera operator, mailman/postal worker, sportsmanship/fair play. Common language practices also tend to infantilize women, not men, when, for example, women are referred to as chicks, girls, or babes. Since no linguistic equivalent indicates the marital status of men before their name, using Ms. instead of Miss or Mrs. helps reduce bias.


The language that includes age bias can be directed toward older or younger people. Descriptions of more youthful people often presume recklessness or inexperience, while those of older people think frailty or disconnection. The term ‘elderly’ generally refers to people over 65. Still, it has connotations of weakness, which is inaccurate because many people over 65 are stronger and more athletic than people in their twenties and thirties. Even though it is a generic phrase, “older people” does not have negative implications, whereas referring to people over 18 as boys or girls is not typically considered appropriate.

Sexual Orientation

Discussions of sexual orientation range from everyday conversations to contentious political and personal debates. The negative stereotypes associated with homosexuality, including deviance, mental illness, and criminal behaviour, continue to influence our language use (APA, 2020). Terminology related to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people can be confusing, so let’s raise awareness about preferred labels. First, sexual orientation is the term preferred to sexual preference. Preference suggests a voluntary choice, as in someone having a preference for cheddar or American cheese, which does not reflect the experience of most 2SLGBTQIA+ [two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual] people or research findings that show sexuality is more complex. Most people also prefer the labels lesbian, gay, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, or asexual plus to homosexual, which is clinical and does not so much refer to an identity as a sex act. Language regarding romantic relationships contains bias when heterosexuality is assumed, for example, asking a female if she has a boyfriend or a male if he has a girlfriend. Comments comparing 2SLGBTQIA+ people to “normal” people, although possibly intended to be positive, reinforces the stereotype that 2SLGBTQIA+ people are abnormal.

Do not presume you can identify a person’s sexual orientation by looking at or talking to them. Furthermore, do not assume 2SLGBTQIA+ people will “come out” to you. Many 2SLGBTQIA+ people have faced and continue to face regular discrimination, so they may be cautious about disclosing their identities. However, using gender-neutral terminology like a partner and avoiding other biased language mentioned previously may create a climate in which a 2SLGBTQIA+ person feels comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation identity. Conversely, the casual use of phrases like “that’s gay” to mean “that’s stupid” may create an environment in which 2SLGBTQIA+ people do not feel comfortable.


People who are differently-abled or have disabilities make up a diverse group that has increasingly come to be viewed as a cultural identity group. People without disabilities are often referred to as able-bodied. As with sexual orientation, comparing people with disabilities to “normal” people implies that there is an agreed-upon definition of what is “normal” and that people with disabilities are “abnormal.” People who fall into the category may prefer the term differently abled or prefer disability to the word handicap.

It is also essential to remember that just because someone is disabled does not mean they are also handicapped. The environment around them, rather than their disability, often handicaps people with disabilities (APA, 2020). Ignoring the environment as the source of a handicap and placing it on the person fits into a pattern of reducing people with disabilities to their disability — for example, calling someone a parapalegic instead of a person with paraplegia. In many cases, as with sexual orientation, race, age, and gender, verbally marking a person as different is irrelevant. The language used in conjunction with disabilities also tends to portray people as victims of their disability and paint pictures of their lives as gloomy, dreadful, or painful. Such descriptors are often generalizations or completely inaccurate.

Activity: Check Your Understanding

Key Takeaways

  • Names can impact how we perceive others. They can also impact how we feel about ourselves.
  • We can increase affiliation with others by converging our language with theirs. We can decrease affiliation with others by diverging our language from theirs.
  • Sexism and racism can be displayed through our language choices. It is important to be aware of the words we use so we do not come across as sexist or racist.


  1. Create a list of names you have heard that are unique. What makes these names unique and memorable? Ask friends to give you their perceptions of those names. Does that match what you think? Why or why not?
  2. Engage in a normal conversation with a friend or family member. Without them knowing what you are doing, slowly and subtly converge your communication style to theirs. Record your observations. Then, with the same person, try to diverge your communication style. Re-record your observations. Ask if the person noticed any communication changes. How did it make them feel? How did you feel? Why?
  3. Make a list of words in the English language that can be considered sexist or racist. Determine how they are sexist or racist, then provide alternatives for these words that are more politically correct.


American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association: The official guide to APA style. https://apastyle.apa.org/products/publication-manual-7th-edition

Christenfeld, N., & Larsen, B. (2008). The name game. The Psychologist, 21(3), 210–213. https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/name-game

Levitt, S. D., & Dubner, S. J. (2005). Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. William Morrow.

Lieberson, S. (2000). A matter of taste: How names, fashions, and culture change. Yale University Press.

Poteat, V. P., & DiGiovanni, C. D. (2010). When biased language use is associated with bullying and dominance behavior: The moderating effect of prejudice. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39(10), 1123–1133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-010-9565-y

Weingarten, G. (2003, September 21). Below the beltway: Signs of a troubled society. The Washington Post. https://tinyurl.com/v629xnn

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:​

Wrench, J. S., Punyanunt-Carter, N., & Thweatt, K. S. (n.d.). Interpersonal communication: A mindful approach to relationships. Milne Library Publishing.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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