Why Cultivating Inclusive Audience Awareness Is Essential

When was the last time you felt like an outsider in a group?

For all I know, it could have been today. Or maybe it was last week. Or last month.

Being an outsider doesn’t have to be a bad experience. Sometimes, it can be quite fun! But other times, you start to get the impression that not only are you not part of the in-group, the group you do belong to—via education, race, class, life experience, disability, neurology, profession, etc.—is a group that the in-group feels superior to or, marginally better, just doesn’t consider at all. In that case, you might start to feel invisible or like everyone is judging you. You probably won’t feel entitled to participate in the group or offer up a different experience.

And frankly, that sucks.

Not only does it suck, but persistently feeling like you don’t belong in the places you want to be can lead to anxiety, depression, and all manner of negative health outcomes. And it’s painful.

Just over a year ago, Rachel Hollis—the bestselling author of Girl, Wash Your Face—made herself the object of a wave of criticism thanks to a video she posted on Instagram. The video was about how Hollis didn’t want to be “relatable” (okay?) and that she wasn’t concerned about the negative messages she receives that accuse her of such.

Whether or not you want to be “relatable” is totally up to you. And if you want to use your massive platform to slam people who don’t relate to you… I guess that’s your right. But Hollis didn’t stop there. In the caption, she compared her lack of relatability to other unrelatable women like, you know, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Malala Yousafzai. In the video itself, she emphasized just how hard she works and that one unrelatable privilege that comes with all of that hard work is that she has a woman come “clean the toilets” twice a week.

Hollis’s apology—which in no way accepted responsibility for her actions—only made the backlash more vehement. She later made a second apology where she said most of the right things… but given her previous comments, it’s hard for me to imagine that this wasn’t written for her by a publicist or consultant.

There is a whole dissertation’s worth of issues to unpack in this mess, including questions of privilege, structural oppression, and hypocrisy. But I want to just focus on one today.

Hollis didn’t stop for a second to consider whether someone who “cleans toilets” might be watching that video.

If she had, she would have likely made the connection between her positionality as a person who can hire a housekeeper and the positionality of someone who does that kind of work. She might have seen that person, instead of as a tool she uses to attain a certain lifestyle, as a full human being with their own subjectivity.

Hollis might have recognized that people who clean toilets probably work harder than she does and face many more structural barriers to success—no, survival—than she faces. Had Hollis considered the people who clean, take care of kids, support the elderly, and work in other jobs our society doesn’t show respect to, she might have realized how painful her words would be. And had Hollis thought about those hardworking people, she could have lifted them up and welcomed them into her audience.

I don’t believe Hollis’s intention is to hurt anyone. But there’s no doubt that the impact of her words did exactly that.

Earlier this year, I started reading the book Ladyparts by Deborah Copaken. I really enjoyed it at first. It seemed like the kind of feminist memoir thing that I often read.

In Chapter 4, Copaken starts to share the origins of her divorce. She describes her ex-husband as unthoughtful and rude—only thinking about himself rather than considering her needs or the expectations of polite society. Initially, I rolled my eyes in sympathy. “He seems like a real piece of work!” I thought.

As her description went on, though, I got an uneasy feeling.

In a marriage counseling session, Copaken describes the biggest challenge in her relationship as “empathy.” Or rather, her husband’s lack thereof. Ooof. Here it comes. She writes:

“Alas empathy, we will soon find out—a key ingredient in mature love if not the key ingredient—is beyond the capabilities of the man I chose to marry. As in literally, neurologically beyond them.”

Yep, her husband receives an autism diagnosis.

I kept reading for a bit… but it only got worse. Copaken unflinchingly described what was “wrong” with her ex-husband. She lamented his complete lack of empathy and despaired over his inability to produce any. She talks about how she viewed him as “an orphan [she] could save.” She assumes that her husband has been using her as a caregiver. At one point, after yelling at him that he has no empathy, he replies, “I don’t even know what that means.” She doesn’t indicate that she took time to explain what she meant by “empathy” (and how it related to her needs as a wife) or try to extend him empathy for perceiving the world so differently than the way she perceives it (this is known as the “double empathy problem”). She simply looks for validation that he’s a lost cause.

It was around that moment that I had to stop reading. Copaken ends Chapter 5 explaining why it was so difficult to leave, listing all the reasons she tried to make it work, and noting that many people have asked, “Why didn’t you leave?” as if the only recourse to being married to an autistic person was divorce. I’ve re-read this section several times as I process parts of my own story and relationship.

Each time, it rips me open. It is painful to read.

I’ve told my own husband that it was entirely possible that Copaken’s ex-husband was both autistic and an asshole. Maybe the divorce was the appropriate action for Copaken to take. But the way the story is told, she didn’t leave because he was an asshole. She left because autism made him an asshole. It was clear to me that Copaken had never even entertained the thought that an autistic person might read her book.

Throughout this section, Copaken seemed to be speaking for autistic people (while disregarding our own needs and experiences). Had Copaken focused on her own experience, instead of laying the blame on her husband, she could have left space for an autistic reader to see things through her eyes.

I don’t believe Copaken’s intention was to hurt autistic people with her story. But there’s no doubt that the impact of her words did exactly that.

What we create and publish ideally reaches an audience.

People engage our stories, advice, and analysis through the lens of their own experience and knowledge. And often, that experience and knowledge are quite different from our own. Misunderstandings and unintentional impacts are inevitable when we connect with each other. We end up positioned as “insiders” by virtue of our authorship, often making others feel like outsiders (sometimes unintentionally).

Who is reading what you write? Who is following your posts? Who is listening to your podcast or watching your videos? I guarantee there is a more diverse segment of humanity among the people you reach than you can imagine.

I can’t imagine how diverse my own audience is (hello there!)–and no survey is ever going to capture the full range of identities and experiences. Knowing what I don’t know about my audience is powerful.

There are people who grew up in poverty. There are people who are currently in poverty. There are racialized people and immigrants. There are people who have had abortions. There are LGBTQIA+ people and non-binary people. There are disabled people, fat people, chronically ill people, dyslexic people, and people with all sorts of stigmatized identities. There are indigenous people. There are people who are estranged from their parents, people who were adopted, and people whose education was anything but conventional. There are people who have experienced violent crime and people who have committed crimes. Our audiences contain multitudes!

I endeavor not to inadvertently hurt those people by what I assume about them. I mess up sometimes. But it’s something I’m always working on both behind the scenes and in public. One thing I am comfortable assuming about you is that you don’t want to hurt people either.

Luckily, there are ways to acknowledge your audience, own your own story, and welcome people into a diverse and inclusive group working toward similar goals.

One of the things we often work with our podcasting clients on is what I call “audience awareness.” Audience awareness is the ability to imagine that the people who are listening to a podcast, reading an article, following you on social media, etc., might have very different life experiences than you have. Inclusive audience awareness helps you care for the people who are paying attention by making space for their differences and how those differences influence their relationship to what you’re sharing. Cultivating this awareness is a way to “reconsider your normal,” as Pause On The Play founder & host Erica Courdae would say.

It could be simple, like qualifying your “we” when referring only to people who share your race, health status, or socioeconomic class (e.g., “We, as autistic people…”). Or, it could be more complex, like considering how the broader idea you are sharing could be painful for someone with a different background. Audience awareness is all about looking for assumptions about who is paying attention and how those assumptions might cause harm or make someone feel excluded.

Note: Exclusion can be intentional and powerful in its own way. For instance, if you’re a disabled person creating for other disabled people, it might be important to explicitly exclude nondisabled people to create a safer space for your audience (and you). And, you can still recognize the vast diversity of experiences & identities among disabled people.

Cultivating audience awareness doesn’t mean watering down your ideas or stories so that they appeal to everyone.

Instead, audience awareness helps us to stand firm in our ideas and stories. There’s no need to generalize ideas beyond real meaning or turn your unique story into actionable advice for the masses.

You can make space for others by staying in the lane of your own unique stories and experiences. Or, as writer Angela Garbes put it on The Feminist Present, “I don’t need to be an expert in someone else’s story. I just need to tell our story.”

No one does this perfectly. I don’t. Garbes admitted in the same episode that she doesn’t either. My brain will inevitably trick me into assuming that my own experience is “normal” and that everyone else shares it. But I can use my network identity to tease out the many layers of my experience (and how I relate to it) to consider how others might relate to my experience. Yes, that takes some extra work if this type of awareness is new to you, as it was for me. But the more you practice inclusive audience awareness, the easier it is to see these linguistical and situational biases all around you—and adjust accordingly.

By the way, my autism is what allows me to tease this apart. Many people are intuitively inclusive in this way, or they’ve been socialized to be aware of how others see them (W.E.B. Du Bois’s “double consciousness”). But I can see the framework. To me, empathy isn’t intuitive. It’s rational. That doesn’t make me less empathic. It means that I process empathy and its presentation differently.

Below, you’ll find questions you can use to start cultivating a more inclusive audience awareness for yourself. When you tell a story or share guidance, running through these questions can help you acknowledge diverse experiences and avoid hurting people unintentionally.

  • Socioeconomic class: Am I assuming that my audience has access (or doesn’t have access) to the same financial or community resources that I have?
  • Health: Am I assuming that my audience shares my health status (including mental health)?
  • Education: Am I assuming that my audience has the same level of education that I have or access to the same educational resources?
  • Race: Am I assuming that my audience belongs to the same race I do? Am I assuming that racialized people have the same experiences that I have?
  • Gender & Sexuality: Am I assuming that my audience holds the same gender identity I hold? Am I assuming that their sexuality or family structure is the same as mine?
  • Family: Am I assuming that my audience has a similar relationship to their biological family that I have? Am I assuming that my audience has the same goals for their family as I have?

Finally, I want to be clear that this isn’t a guide for avoiding being “canceled.” This isn’t about us as creators or business owners. It’s about the potential pain we cause humans in our audiences. I cultivate inclusive audience awareness because I’ve been hurt before and because I’ve hurt others before. And I don’t want anyone to feel like an outsider when it comes to the ideas and stories I share.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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