Promoting empathy and inclusion in technical writing

Empathy is the first step in practicing lasting and authentic inclusion. If people or groups of people feel unwelcome because of the language used in a community, its products, or its documentation, the words may be changed. Identifying divisive language can help bring about changes in the words we use.

Eliane Pereira and Josip Vilicic, both technical writers, spoke about promoting inclusion in documentation at OOP 2022.

Empathy is a mindful practice where we listen to each other and try to feel what they are feeling, Vilicic said. It allows a person to relate to someone else’s experience, even if it is unfamiliar.

Pereira mentioned that empathy is the key to understanding how other people feel in certain situations, even if the situation doesn’t affect you. A word may be just a word to you, but the same word can impact your colleagues and make the work environment unsafe for them.

It takes empathy and a willingness to make changes to make everyone feel included, as Pereira explained:

For example, in engineering, master/slave is an asymmetric communication or control model where one device or process, the “master”, controls one or more other devices or processes, the “slaves”. For a descendant of slaves who decides to contribute to a project, the perceived racial connotation associated with terms, invoking slavery, is terrible.

Vilicic mentioned that the most important thing is to have the support of key decision makers in an organization to improve the language. Once there is ideological support, the difficulty of the journey is less important, because we know that we have a good goal in mind: to improve the language so that it does not harm our community, he said. declared.

By using inclusive language, we give everyone the opportunity to be themselves, explained Pereira. We can make sure we don’t use expressions that can be punitive or make people feel rejected or embarrassed for who they are, she said.

InfoQ interviewed Eliane Pereira and Josip Vilicic on promoting empathy and inclusion in documentation.

InfoQ: What role does empathy play in inclusion?

Josip Vilicic: If someone says that he is illegitimately excluded from a community and the community says that it is not intentional, there is a conflict.


Conflict is not inherently bad…but we can react to conflict destructively (defensively or aggressively) or constructively (empathetically). If the community listens actively, does not deny the experience shared by the excluded group and does not want to perpetuate evil, then the only choice left to the community is to correct the inequality through inclusion.

InfoQ: What can be done to encourage and support people to switch languages?

Eliane Pereira: Speak to show that changes are needed. Listen if you think some changes are not necessary. People are used to harmful language being present in their daily lives to the point that when asked to change they will say, “It’s been there forever, we don’t need to change it, it’s not is just a word”.


That’s why we need to explain why we need to replace those words, so people know that they’re not just words, but a way of communicating something and sometimes that something can be derogatory to someone. .

InfoQ: How can using inclusive language increase psychological safety?

Vilicic: Using inclusive language signals to the public that we are moving forward in a sensitive, intentional and caring way. This can make your teammates feel like they’re in a supportive environment, where they can talk freely and won’t be rejected.


Whatever our professional endeavors, we are a group of flawed people working towards a common goal. When we base our interactions on respect for each other’s humanity, we allow ourselves to collaborate on amazing things.

Pereira: Some words have a connotation for us, but for others, can be a sore point in their life. For example, saying you have ADHD to express that you have trouble concentrating on your job can make a colleague who actually has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) feel embarrassed. or is afraid of being labeled as a worker unable to do his job. That’s why we think it’s important to avoid metaphors to express yourself. To say that you are unable to concentrate on work that day is pretty clear.