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Feli (she/her) for Studio M - Song

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Inclusive Language in Slack

Since the start of the pandemic a lot of us moved their company communication to Slack (or similar tools). To help my colleagues and support them with how to use Slack I wrote a slack etiquette for SinnerSchrader. Lot of them were not used to Slack or asynchronous communication chat tools at all. After I talked to Stefan Judis about the slack etiquette and got a lot of input + sparring from him, we made the slack etiquette public.

What I experienced afterwards is that we came up with a lot of new issues especially regarding inclusive language. Of course you could argue that people should know how to do inclusive language anyways, but it’s more complicated than that, I would say. For a lot of people who are not native speakers and / or never had something to do with this topic the written language is more complicated. Additionally you can now re-read the written word at any time. So, mistakes are more likely to be seen and not to be forgotten.
That’s why I looked into a solution for Slack. It was very clear to me that we should use a slack bot. I looked into different solutions that may help us with inclusive language. Today I want to share those learnings and my recommendation with you.


Inclusive Language Support for Slack

There are two solutions when it comes to inclusive language at Slack. The global version and the private one.

Slackbot - The Global Version

Slackbot is a feature in slack that can automatically respond to messages that members of your workspace send in channels.

  • Global - for all channels (no exclusions)
  • Public slackbot responses, everyone in the slack channel will see them
  • High initial effort for first maintenance
    • Depending on the languages you want to support
  • Easy maintenance

Side effect: Since everyone will see the slackbot response, it has a learning effect for everyone and promotes open exchange about it.

Screenshot of Feli writes "blacklist" and the Slackbot is answering "Let's use a word/prhase like "disallow list or "denylist" or "blocklist" instead

Consider

  • It's global and can't be switched on or off per channel
  • By default every member of the Slack workspace is allowed to maintain the slackbot responses. You may consider turning this functionality off. change default settings for slackbot responses at "Customize Your Workspace"

Further


Slackbot - The Private Version

You can also write bots yourself and use the Slack APIs to interact with messages.

  • Can be integrated into individual channels (is not global)
  • High initial effort due to development time
  • Maintenance could be mapped via json or similar
  • Can be configured to send the message only to the sender "Only visible to you".
  • As sender I can edit my message and apply what is suggested without anyone seeing it

Side note: Of course there are inclusive language slackbots you can add to your workspace, but I haven't found some who have the option to maintain the words/phrases

Consider

  • Could be turned off by the individual channels, e.g. because it is felt as annoying
  • Initial time expenditure is higher and can be settled in the case only by developers

Further


Personal Recommendation

What both solutions have in common is that a bot is responding to non-inclusive language and no human need to do so. That is also the reason why the sender is more likely to not take it personally.

Alt Text

My personal recommendation is the global solution. This one can support you in dealing openly with the topic of inclusive language. In addition, it serves as a tool for education about inclusive language.

As a company, you are sending a clear signal that you make no distinction between internal and external communication (clients, freelancer, partners, …. If they are in your company's slack workspace as well).

If you consider this solution, you should plan preparation time for a good communication strategy. Just turning it on would cause some to feel they had been blindsided.

In addition, the public solution requires the creation of well-worded "response" messages to "non-inclusive words". This would help to ensure that no blaming character is created, but rather that the clear goal of clarification is pursued.

The Global Solution - Slackbot Responses: Promoting open interaction/exchange & Inclusive language education for everyone

What is your experience? Are you already using a slack bot for inclusive language in your company? Project? Community?


Photos by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Top comments (29)

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darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️

if a bot tells me not to use the word "blacklist", I will start looking for another job

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kotzendekrabbe profile image
Feli (she/her)

i can recommend to read this article (or google) why it’s important to also take care about black and white list when it comes to inclusive language
forbes.com/sites/carolinamilanesi/...

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darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️ • Edited

I'll read that article properly some other day, but from reading the first two paragraphs and glancing over the rest of it, my observations are: This is mostly about cultural sensibilities of the USA, which I find about as unsurprising as the attitude that the rest of the world should somehow care; I also didn't yet spot any explanation for what the problem with black and white list is, so at best that's not what the article is mainly about, in which case, why post it at all?


EDIT: Never mind, I just read this paragraph

Apple argues that each person has a unique perspective, but that perspective is built on the intersectionality of human characteristics and experiences that relate to age, gender and gender identity, race and ethnicity, sexuality, physical attributes, cognitive attributes, permanent, temporary, and situational disabilities, language and culture, religion, education, political or philosophical opinions and social and economic context.

and don't think an article that wastes that many words to say "people have personalities" respects the readers time. There doesn't seem to be anything other than unsubstantiated claims anyway.

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kotzendekrabbe profile image
Feli (she/her)

Just a question, did you read the code of conduct of dev.to? If not you should, ASAP.

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darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️

I have indeed, several times, in fact. If you'd like to point out which part of it you mean specifically, I'll most likely be able to explain how that's not relevant here; but until then I'll assume you're referring to where it says:

Using welcoming and inclusive language

I don't know if I need to point this out, but that applies only to dev.to, not to the workplace of any dev.to user. But please correct me if you were referring to something else.

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kotzendekrabbe profile image
Feli (she/her)

You argue that the article has to many words which are also used in dev.tos Code Of Conduct (which is a super good one). It's normal to name all the different background when it comes to inlcusion and diversity.
On top of it you argue that it's "US" focused, surprise - most terms in software development are comming from the US. You are not seeing the fact that it has nothing to do where you live if People Of Color see that black and white list are connected to bad and good (as explained in the article).
Beside that you started with just trolling around with "if a bot tells me not to use the word "blacklist", I will start looking for another job" is not critic at all, it's just trolling about something you seem to not understand. That's not inclusive behaviour at all.

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darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️ • Edited

You argue that the article has to many words

Not at all; my point is that all of these things are trivial. Any of the named characteristics are understood by pretty much everyone to be factors in a persons perspective. Listing them all id simply disproportionate to the size of the article and the point it's trying to make.

It's normal to name all the different background when it comes to inlcusion [sic] and diversity.

Many things are common, that doesn't necessarily mean they are meaningful. In a longer article, maybe one of a more formal nature, yes, it would make sense to explicitly name all of these characteristics, but that's not what that article is.

most terms in software development are coming from the US

Many terms in mathematics come from German*; that doesn't mean German cultural norms should be dictated to the whole field of mathematics. But that wasn't even my point. Why would I, living and working outside the USA, not see it as a red flag if language rules were being implemented at my workplace to address political and social sensibilities of the USA?

black and white list are connected to bad and good

This has nothing to do with skin colour. Colours get used in all types of context and there's also many more ways to relate them to the human body. Green means good and nobody would think of connecting this to green eye colour. Red on the other hand means bad yet red-haired people aren't complaining about this.

The fact that black and white specifically are being singled out as bad makes it clear that this isn't an inherent problem with the fact that these colours can be related to people's visual traits, but that this problem only results from a very specific cultural context specific to one geographic area.

Trying to force this on the rest of the world seems arrogant at best, unless there was an equal amount of effort put into the sensibilities of any other culture that might ever interact with a product or service; but that's not even close to being the case, from what I've seen so far.

it's just trolling about something you seem to not understand.

You seem to have a very skewed idea of what "trolling" is.

To clarify: Hyperbole is not trolling. I would indeed be very much opposed to anything like this being implemented at my workplace and it would definitely be a factor if I was ever considering switching workplaces.

On top of that, assuming disagreement to automatically be the result of lack of understanding says a lot on its own. I could just as well be accusing you of not having thought things through simply because your opinion doesn't align with mine. That would lead us nowhere.

* Many of which have also made their way into IT. Ever wondered why null pointers are called that and not zero pointers?

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pixari profile image
Raffaele Pizzari

@darkwiiplayer I see your point and appreciate the effort you put in explaining your point of view.

In an ideal world, no word would be harmful.

In the world we live, we have to consider social implications, cultural background, current context and impact of our behaviour.

Saying "blackboard" doesn't make you racist and it's clear that has nothing to do with human beings or skin color.
However, saying "whiteboard" makes your language more inclusive and it's a clear statement about your social and political views about some crucial topics.

You say: "Green means good and nobody would think of connecting this to green eye colour.".
True, because as far as I know nobody has been discriminated, persecuted or harmed just for having green eyes.

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darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️

True, because as far as I know nobody has been discriminated, persecuted or harmed just for having green eyes.

Fair point, but for one that doesn't apply to red haired people; but it also underlines that this is (as you have also said) highly dependent on cultural background.

To underline some more why I think this is so relevant: I'm from Germany and, while it was definitely a thing here too, racism based on skin colour isn't really as big of a cultural issue here; but instead anything related to the holocaust is probably very comparable to the skin-colour issue in the USA (take the word gas for example) and yet I don't see any attempt to impose this on the rest of the world.

And of course I'm not criticising anybody who does decide to change their language or suggest it to others; my problem is strictly with cases where this "suggestion" turns into grandstanding, like using a bot that actively nags people about their choice of words in a chat.

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marekisokay profile image
Markus Gebka 🏕️

Hey man - although your name is "DarkWiiPlayer" I assume that you're light skinned as I am, right? That also means (at least to me) that we should not try to determine what words can and can't hurt other people. I am not offended by the use of the word "black" but I respect that other groups might be. Is that too much to ask?

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darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️

That also means (at least to me) that we should not try to determine what words can and can't hurt other people.

We'll have to disagree here. Even if we completely disregard how this is, in itself, discriminatory; reducing issues to race like this will only serve to perpetuate the sort of thinking that puts skin-colour at the center of any issue.

If you want to argue along those lines, at least make it about experiences. I'll assume we both have never been on the receiving (or hopefully any other) end of structural racism, but that's not universal. Every trait can be discriminated against and treating it as an absolute that white people cannot be qualified to speak on these topics is, in my opinion, just racism with good intentions.

As for respecting other people getting offended, that really begs the question "where does it end?". There is some sort of limit to how far even you would go along with this, so it's really just a question of where to draw that line. And what I take issue with is when people start grandstanding because they are willing to go along just a bit further than someone else, and setting up a bot to automatically respond to certain vocabulary is definitely going to far for me.

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pixari profile image
Raffaele Pizzari

Sorry @darkwiiplayer ,

but if your career choices are so fragile that can collapse due a single sentence of a bot, I'm afraid you should already consider to change job.

I wish you the best.

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darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️

what you're saying doesn't make any sense; why would I change jobs when there's nothing wrong with my current job? To be clear, I wasn't implying that any change like this is at all likely to happen anytime soon where I work.

As for the "fragile" part, it's almost ironic to see people use the right wing's signature "I won't consider your arguments so I'm attributing your whole position to personal weakness" phrase.

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pixari profile image
Raffaele Pizzari

Your quote: "if a bot tells me not to use the word "blacklist", I will start looking for another job".

I was pointing out that either that bot's answer hurts you a lot (which is fine) or your job motivation is very fragile.

At the end is just an automatic program which invites you to use a slightly more inclusive language.
It's fine to agree or disagree, but is it really so bad to let you change job?

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darkwiiplayer profile image
𒎏Wii 🏳️‍⚧️

As I mentioned elsewhere, I was being hyperbolic. I wouldn't change jobs just because of something like this, but it would definitely be a red flag.

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ilyasmez profile image
ilyasmez • Edited

Great article!
What I don't like about the Slackbot is that it punishes the user publicly, which might result in people hating the idea of inclusive langauge instead of embracing it.

In my company we use this bot: slack.com/apps/A034T9X5YAU-inclusi...

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kotzendekrabbe profile image
Feli (she/her)

Looks very promising, will have a look at it. Thanks for sharing

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josefine profile image
Josefine Schfr

I really like the idea of using a Slackbot to spark more reflections around inclusive language in the workplace as it takes away the responsibility from individuals to point out the use of phrases or words that might not be inclusive. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this :)
There are some slackbots (like e.g. a11ybot) which come with a large set of non-inclusive words they check for and nice wording to suggest alternatives. This would mean a little less effort setting up, but might not be as flexible in defining all terms one would like to check for. And it's a paid service which of course is not accessible to everyone...

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kotzendekrabbe profile image
Feli (she/her)

We tried it, but it wasn’t enough words/phrase and no option to add some, sadly.

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coderbyheart profile image
Markus Tacker 🇳🇴

Great writeup! In the Slack communities that are dear to me (like the Software Crafters Slack, the Friends of Good Software Slack, the Distribute Aid Slack, ...), we had good success with a mixture of automation (using bots the privately ask people to use more inclusive language), and training the moderators to have an eye on channel descriptions, and other places that can't be directly covered by bots.

This helps to create a very inclusive and welcoming community.

The great thing with using bots is that enables a community to be consistent, regardless who is using outdated language, and provides a good way to point people to guides with better language examples immediately after they've sent a message. This is the best moment when they can quickly reword their message and help them avoid causing harm.

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board4life profile image
Board 4 Life • Edited

Thanks for posting this article, although we don't use Slack at work but it made me realise that we could change some of the language we use to be more inclusive. I mentioned this to management and they readily agreed. So thought you might like to know that you helped speed up the path to more inclusive in language in part of an internationally well known organisation by writing this piece :)

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kotzendekrabbe profile image
Feli (she/her)

woooohooo. thank you for sharing, that makes me really happy! made my day. Thank you so much <3

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chaos_monster profile image
little chaosmonster

Great article. Looking forward to see something like this in my slack .

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pixari profile image
Raffaele Pizzari

Thank you @kotzendekrabbe for this article.
I would love to have such Slack bots on all my workspaces.

I never thought about something like that but I think it could be very effective.

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kotzendekrabbe profile image
Feli (she/her)

happy to help setting them up, espacially on your community workspace. If you want to :)

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savdav96 profile image
Davide Savoldelli

I wonder why people should take an effort in order to respect this pathetic rules. Being offended by those words is unbelievable.

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