2.7 Culturally Sensitive Terminology

Understanding the relationship between culture and language has become a requirement for successful businesses in the developing global economy. Cultural conventions inform language, often creating differences in the content, organizational pattern, presentation of argument, style, and format of business documents. Differences in conventions can lead to readers misinterpreting or failing to understand a message.

Given that most businesses work with people from two or more different cultural backgrounds at the same time, it is important to promote effective communication among employees and employers. The main barrier in communication is language. It is therefore important to be clear and concise, use gender-neutral language, and avoid jargon or idioms that could be misinterpreted by or even offensive to another person.

Additionally, it’s important for organizations/businesses to establish agreed upon culturally sensitive terminology. The following information comes from Illinois Wesleyan University’s “List of Preferred Terminology” for all of its correspondence:


Hyphens are often used in conjunction with “American,” particularly in the cases of Indian-American, Italian-American, Mexican-American, etc.; however, choice should be left to individual or group preference (exception: American Indian, Native American).

American Indian – Synonymous with Native American, though choice should be left to individual or group preference. Use specific identification, such as Sioux or Navajo, whenever appropriate.

Asian-American – Use to express dual heritage for someone of Asian descent. However, when appropriate, use a more specific identification, such as Japanese-American.

Black – The preferred AP style is to use African-American or African American if quoted or as part of an organization’s name. Preference should be left to individuals or groups.

Hispanic – Can be used to express the heritage for someone whose ethnic origin is in a Spanish-speaking country. Some prefer the term Latino (masculine) or Latina (feminine). For more specific identification when appropriate, use a hyphenated expression, such as Cuban-American. *Many organizations have adopted the gender-neutral Latinx.

Gender-Neutral Language

To avoid gender-bias in written materials, gender-neutral terms should be used whenever possible.

      • When appropriate, remove masculine or feminine markers.
        EXAMPLE: firefighter, police officer, flight attendant, server instead of fireman/woman, policeman/woman, steward/stewardess, or waiter/waitress
      • Avoid using man instead of person.
        EXAMPLEChair or Chairperson instead of Chairman or Chairwoman
      • When appropriate, write in the plural to avoid gender specificity.
        EXAMPLE: Each student must meet with their instructors.” instead of “Each student must meet with his or her instructors.
      • When appropriate, write in the second person.
        EXAMPLE: Please bring your books to class.” instead of “Each student should bring his/her books to class.


To avoid sexuality-bias, the preferred term for someone who is either gay or a lesbian is homosexual, though it is acceptable to use either. The preferred term for someone attracted to both men and women is bisexual. The preferred term for some individuals whose self-identified gender diverges from his or her assigned gender is transgender (transgender individuals may identify themselves as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexualpansexual, or asexual). Use transsexual only when referring to an individual who has undergone a sex change operation. However, choice of terminology should be left to individual or group preference.

It’s important to keep in mind that, like all language, the language used to describe different LGBTIQ people and by different parts of LGBTIQ communities changes over time and can differ across cultures and generations. There will also be differences in how people individually use or define particular terms. You may also encounter outdated or even offensive terms in medical, psychological or legal contexts.

For more information on using gender-inclusive / non-sexist language, see University of Pittsburgh’s “Gender-Inclusive Guidelines.”


To avoid religious bias, use the following terms:

      • Use the term multi-denominational to describe a service that covers all Christian denominations
      • The term non-denominational typically refers to Christian religions that develop their own specific beliefs, which vary from church to church.
      • The term interfaith refers to services that include two or more religions.


Additional Resources

"Culturally Sensitive Terminology." Illinois Wesleyan University. 2020. (used with permission)
Estrada, Montserrat Fonesca. "Cultural Sensitivity in the Workplace." Penn State Extension. 7 May, 2015. (used with permission)


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