The Microsoft Style Guide Part 3: Bias-free Communication

In our last blog post, we spoke a bit about special terms and guidelines. Moving away from formal writing techniques, we now delve into the tricky realm of communication, which is what this style guide aims to facilitate and advocate.

After all, Microsoft is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. Most everyone has used, or uses, a Microsoft product. With its domination of the technology market comes a greater responsibility to cater to the specific cultural needs of its customers, which brings us to the question: how does Microsoft advertise and provide service in a way that is inclusive of such a varied audience?

A bias-free mode of communication—in which no one is left out, on purpose or by accident—is high on Microsoft’s list. There is a section in the Microsoft Style Guide that covers this topic extensively. “Microsoft technology reaches every part of the globe, so it’s critical that all our communications are inclusive and diverse,” says the guide. Microsoft manages to stay relevant and appeal to everyone precisely because it actively strives for bias-free communication. 

So how does Microsoft do it? There are a number of ways that Microsoft combats bias in writing, given that language is fraught with biases that often go unchecked when we write. As such, the list is nonexhaustive, and this style guide offers general methods that deal with the most pressing issues we face: sexism, racism, and ableism. Without further ado, here are some ways in which Microsoft combats bias in its writing. 


Gender-neutral alternatives for common terms

The English language, like most other languages, has a history of using gendered occupations and descriptions. You might be familiar with the English language’s tendency to use the word “man” as a generic term for all humankind, as in this quote from Abraham Lincoln’s Speech to the One Hundred Sixty-fourth Ohio Regiment: “We have, as all will agree, a free Government, where every man has a right to be equal with every other man.” 

If there are ways—and there are many—to avoid gender-specific language in favor of more neutral choices, it is only fair that we do so. The Microsoft Style Guide offers the following examples:

chairman → chair, moderator

man, mankind → humanity, people, humankind

mans → operates, staffs

salesman → sales representative

manmade → synthetic, manufactured

manpower → workforce, staff, personnel


Avoid using gendered pronouns in generic situations

For the same reason mentioned above, masculine pronouns are often used as generic placeholders in simulations and examples. The Microsoft Style Guide recommends avoiding using any gendered pronouns in such cases, instead opting for the second person you, the plural pronoun we or they, specific roles (e.g. reader, employee), or the gender-neutral terms person or individual.

The guide also frowns upon constructions like he/she or s/he; such constructions are binary and hence reductive. The modern English language is malleable enough to accommodate the usage of the 3rd person plural they as a singular, indeterminate pronoun. Here are some examples provided by the style guide:

If the user has the appropriate rights, he can set other users’ passwords. 

→ If you have the appropriate rights, you can set other users’ passwords. 

If you want to call someone who isn’t in your Contacts list, you can dial his or her phone number using the dial pad. 

→ If you want to call someone who isn’t in your Contacts list, you can dial their phone number using the dial pad.


Exceptions to gender-neutral pronoun usage

The style guide leaves some room for certain specific situations that do require gender-specific pronouns. There are three occasions where this is acceptable: writing about real people, quoting directly from someone’s words, or discussing gender-specific issues.

[An acceptable example of writing about real people]

The skills that Claire developed in the Marines helped her move into a thriving technology career.

[An acceptable example of citing a quotation]

The chief operating officer of Munson’s Pickles and Preserves Farm says, “My great uncle Isaac, who employed his brothers, sisters, mom, and dad, knew that they—and his customers—were depending on him.”

[An acceptable example of writing about gender-specific issues]

Do you have a daughter? Here are a few things you can do to inspire and support her interest in STEM subjects.


Representing diverse perspectives and circumstances

Oftentimes, writers default to a man of a certain racial or socioeconomic background when writing generic examples. It’s crucial that writers actively fight this urge to fall back to the norm when so many viable options exist. After all, the tech world—and the entire world at large—is so diverse. “Be inclusive of gender identity, race, culture, ability, age, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class,” the style guide advises, “avoid using examples that reflect primarily a Western or affluent lifestyle.” 

This principle pertains not only to depictions of work life but also to personal and family settings as well. Diversity exists in all forms and shapes, and Microsoft is an advocate of diversity in all its various manifestations in the world.


Avoid generalizations when writing about the world

The world is big, but the space we as individuals occupy is quite small. In our corner of the world, it’s easy to think of the rest of the world in generalizations; it helps us make better sense of the world. 

But the world is so much more complex than that. Each person, each culture is full of nuances, complexities, and paradoxes that lie at the heart of their individuality and uniqueness. And when we generalize a person, culture, or country, we reduce their individuality down to a bite-sized piece, rendering them understandable to us. And in this process, we erase the subjectivity of another person—numerous people, in fact. 

This doesn’t only apply to negative generalizations. “Don’t make generalizations about people, countries, regions, and cultures,” says the guide, “not even positive or neutral generalizations.” Even positive generalizations are demeaning and reductive. So how do we write without generalizing? 

It’s simpler than it sounds. When we write about someone or someplace far away from us, we should always run the mental exercise of critiquing our own thoughts. We should ask ourselves, “is this a fair, nuanced representation of the culture I am writing about?” or “would I like it if someone else wrote about me like this?” 

That last question is particularly important: we should always practice substituting ourselves in the stead of others. It encourages us to think from the perspective of others so that we learn to treat others as we treat ourselves. 


Don’t use terms that carry unconscious racial bias or terms associated with military actions, politics, or historical events and eras

Take the master/slave analogy for example. Many technical writers and engineers use this analogy when referring to a hierarchy of networks and connections. The use of this analogy flies under the radar, as the terms are used merely to describe machines and networks, not people.

But etymology is crucial in writing; it’s good to ask ourselves where a particular phrase comes from, what kind of connotations it carries, and how different people might understand it differently. Master/slave is an important example, not only because it is widespread in technical writing, but also because it stems from a particularly painful, longstanding history of slavery. Some people might find this unproblematic; others might find it offensive and threatening. 

The same applies to terms that refer to military actions and politics. Political terms are, by nature, divisive and controversial, such as the Liancourt Rocks located between South Korea and Japan. Depending on what name you use to call the isles, you can offend a whole population, although the neutral term “Liancourt Rocks” in itself can be considered imperialist. 

Make sure to understand the political and societal nuances of a region or concept before writing about it. The world is a lived place, populated by people with very real experiences, and language reflects these experiences, is fraught with them. 


If you’re curious about other usage prescriptions or general principles in tech writing, the Microsoft Style Guide has all the information you need to get you on track. Come back for the next part of our Microsoft Style Guide special, where we cover all the interesting and useful information the guide has to offer. If you’re curious about how Sprok DTS uses the Microsoft Style Guide in its translation and localization, visit our website today and take a look at the wide variety of language services we provide.

Our translators and localization experts here at Sprok DTS are knowledgeable in various styles of writing, the Microsoft Style Guide included. Ask for a free quote for your next translation or localization project on our website.