"Don't fret." Fostering inclusivity in language
Jamie Wilson, Communications Strategist, Professional & Organizational Development

Words matter. How we speak to one another and the language that we choose can show regard, respect and inclusion, or a lack thereof. In practical terms, if we offend, demean or marginalize the receiver — in conversation, in print, on the web or via email — our communications will not be as successful.

Earlier this year, POD experienced a major problem with a vendor that we contract with, and the account manager responded with “Don’t fret.”

Ujima Donalson and I were both on that email, and we were not fretting. We were trying to run POD’s business of providing self-sustaining training, coaching and consulting to UW employees and departments, and the vendor's error was putting one of our programs in jeopardy. Yes, we were concerned and frustrated and looking for a quick resolution, but to fret implies something else.

To fret or not to fret

Ujima and I had met with the account manager (I’ll call him Brad) a number of times. We were aware of his gender, as he was of ours (verified by an email a few days later that started with the greeting "Hi Ladies”). I was astonished that anyone would say “don’t fret” to an assistant vice president at a major university, and I can't help but suspect that if we were men, we wouldn't have been told not to fret.

To fret is to be in a state of anxiety or worry, yet it’s hard to imagine telling a family member diagnosed with a terminal illness or a friend who just lost their job, “Don’t fret.”

“Fret” carries the connotation that the person fretting is overreacting, responding emotionally (as opposed to logically), or making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. This is evidenced by fret’s top synonyms, according to thesaurus.com: agonize, bother, brood, carp, chafe, fume, fuss and grieve. The Microsoft Word thesaurus shows that to be fretful is to be worried, restless, nervous, agitated, unsettled, anxious, distressed, irritable, upset, touchy, fussy or neurotic.

Inclusivity in language

Even though Brad worked to get the problem resolved quickly, his choice of words felt dismissive and gave me the impression — accurate or not ― that he didn’t believe the problem was as serious as we made it out to be. In short, his choice of words added angst to an already tense situation and affected my perceptions of the level of service we were receiving.

No doubt each of us has been guilty of putting our foot in our mouth at least once, but as public employees, frequent communicators (how many emails do you write in a day?) and human beings, we should all strive to do better.

One challenge that we face is that language evolves. According to writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci, “Language is at the same time a living thing and a museum of fossils of life and civilizations.”

For instance, many of us grew up hearing or using terms that would be deemed offensive or inappropriate today (e.g., founding fathers). When I was in high school in the 1980s, the generic “he” ruled the day, but it could now be safely categorized as one of Gramsci’s fossils. More recently, we’ve seen increased acceptance of “they” being used as a generic pronoun and also being chosen by some who identify as non-binary, reflecting cultural shifts with gender expression and gender fluidity.

If you’re considering offering the Spring Retreat as a development opportunity for one or more of your team members, please note that I’ll be presenting "What's the Word: Inclusivity in Language" with my colleague Lizette Ruiz at the retreat on April 22. Lizette and I are looking forward to a lively session about the evolution of language, identifying bias in language and practicing inclusive writing. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about inclusivity in language, I’ve provided a few resources below.

Following up on “don’t fret”

As someone who prefers to avoid confrontation, I had a hard time following up with Brad. I did not want to introduce awkwardness or tension into a business relationship, but it was there already (for me, anyway) and not following up with Brad didn’t feel right either.

It took me a number of weeks, but after some gentle prodding from a colleague, I finally sent an email.

I wanted to loop back with you about this email from January. We really appreciated your responsiveness; however, I would like to let you know that your reply of “don’t fret” felt dismissive. It might be particular to me or my gender, but as a woman in the workplace, I didn’t appreciate being told not to fret.

Again, we were happy that you worked to get the problem solved, but I did want to let you know that your choice of words had a negative effect at the time.

Thanks for listening.

I reworked my email to Brad a few times over (in fact, it might even be fair to say I fretted over it). While I still believe there’s room for improvement, I did follow some basic feedback and communication principles: using “I” (or in some cases “we”) statements, being direct and succinct, explaining the impact, providing positive feedback to offset the negative and maintaining a civil tone.

It took a number of days for Brad to respond, and, yes, it felt awkward as he tried to apologize and simultaneously defend his good intentions and as I tried to be gracious and receptive and yet still stand my ground. Despite the awkwardness, we ended up having a fruitful dialogue via email that showed me Brad had in fact considered his words and yet still made a choice that felt wrong to me.

I expect few people truly like to receive constructive feedback, but Brad seemed to appreciate that I was honest with him and left the door open for him to respond, and I ended up feeling more positive about Brad than I had before. In short, giving Brad my feedback improved our working relationship, and I think it served a good reminder — for both of us — of how easily things can be miscommunicated or misconstrued via email, especially when you don’t have an established relationship with someone.

Overall, it feels good to have shared the feedback, and I believe I’ll be less likely to shy away from following up in the future. As our culture continues to evolve, keeping the conversation moving forward is vital.


“Gender pronouns matter” (includes a video by Jama Abdirahman). University of Washington Bothell, Jan. 27, 2017. https://www.uwb.edu/news/january-2017/gender-pronouns-video

Princing, McKenna. “How to Talk About Gender Pronouns and Why You Should.” Right as Rain by UW Medicine, Jan. 13, 2020. https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/life/relationships/how-to-talk-about-pronouns

Riddle, Christa. “Is Your Writing Offensive? How to Use Inclusive, Politically Correct Language.” All About Writing, Feb. 14, 2018. https://allaboutwritingconsulting.com/2018/02/is-your-writing-offensive-how-to-use-inclusive-politically-correct-language/

“Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Definitions,” Human Rights Campaign, accessed 2/20/2020. https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity-terminology-and-definitions

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