3 Steps to Improve Communication in a Rapidly-Diversifying America

Collage Group, a consumer research brand, spoke at our 2022 Page Up Annual Conference about using correct language and terminology to create equitable and inclusive communications. We asked them to share some of their research as a blog to help our members be aware of this important aspect of communication.  

Diversity is the future—and the present—of America. Multicultural Americans (i.e., Hispanic, Black, and Asian individuals) already make up 40% of the US population and they’re expected to represent the majority of the country by 2048.  One way to create connection with these diverse individuals is to make sure you’re using the correct racial and ethnic terminology in your communications. Getting this terminology right signals understanding and that you value the segment’s wishes. Getting it wrong, even if unintentional, can create psychological barriers that make future connections more difficult. 

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to know what the correct terminology is. In fact, this has actually gotten more difficult in recent years as there’s been greater emphasis placed on the importance of race and ethnicity as aspects of identity, an increasing focus on intersectional identities, and increasing calls for inclusive terminology. 

As part of our mandate to keep a pulse on culture in America, Collage Group recently fielded our annual terminology survey. This survey explores the terms people use to describe themselves and those they’re comfortable having other people use to refer to them. The central focus is on racial and ethnic terminology, with a secondary focus on terms for sexuality and gender. Below are three rules of thumb companies and organizations can lean on to ensure they’re using the best terminology to connect with diverse America.  

Use data to understand what terms people prefer you to use 

The first rule of thumb is to use the terms that people prefer. This sounds easy, but it’s actually quite challenging if you don’t have data to rely on. It would be very easy to assume, for example, that Latinx is the most preferred term to refer to Hispanic individuals given the explosion of its use over the past few years. But when we asked Hispanic Americans how they feel about this term, we found it elicits much more negativity than both Hispanic and Latino/Latina.  This of course doesn’t mean the term Latinx should never be used. In fact, there are several situations where Latinx could be the right term—e.g., if you want to signal inclusivity and are willing to accept some backlash. This example is really just meant to highlight the importance of basing decisions like this on good data that provides insight into the preferences of the people to which you will be referring.  

When you can, go as specific as possible

The second rule of thumb is to go as specific as possible. For example, if you know that you’re speaking to a group of Black Americans that includes many recent immigrants, then you’ll probably want to use the term Black instead of African American since many recent Black immigrants don’t identify with the term African American and the history of struggle in America it conveys. Similarly, if you’re audience is mostly Hispanics of Mexican origin, then you’ll drive greater connection by using a term like Mexican-American than simply referring to them as Latinos or Hispanics. Indeed, we see that people often use more specific terms (Indian AmericanMexican AmericanChinese, etc.) to describe themselves when they’re given the option. It stands to reason they’d prefer the more-specific term used when people are communicating with them also. 

When going broad, use race and ethnicity terms that are the least likely to cause backlash

The third rule of thumb is to use the terms that are least likely to cause backlash when you need to communicate with a broader segment—i.e., all Hispanics regardless of country of origin, all Asian-Americans regardless of country of origin, etc.  This is the situation that many organizations and companies find themselves in given the cost associated with country-of-origin specific messaging and outreach.  

For the broad Hispanic segment, either Hispanic or Latino is your best bet. Both have more than 70% of respondents feeling positive towards the terms, and 7% or less feeling negative. For the broad Asian American segment, either Asian or Asian American are okay to use. They have positive sentiment at 69% or above and negative sentiment at just 5%. For the broader Black segment, the term Black is probably the best bet given it’s more inclusive and enjoys similar positivity and negativity as the term African American among our Black respondents.