Recently, my supervisor asked me to do some research on deficit-based language. At first, this was something meant to help our copywriting team. One of our company’s partners called out our use of deficit-based language, so we had to figure out how to remedy that. Follow my research, I realized the resonance of avoiding deficit-based language goes much further than merely writing words that please people who help us collect checks. Language impacts our mindset. Furthermore, the mindset we employ creates narratives that can affect us in profound ways.
What is Deficit-Based Language and Asset-Based Language?
Deficit-based language focuses on needs, lack, or perceived weaknesses of individuals or groups, such that the individuals or groups become viewed as “the problem.” The opposite of this is asset-based language, which focuses on opportunities, strengths, or positive outcomes.
Deficit-based language reflects a mindset.
I came across a couple of examples that provide apt illustrations.
Why do Black and Latino students perform worse than white students?
Summer internships are essential for crime prevention.
Here are examples of how to reframe these with asset-based language.
What resources can help Black and Latino students perform at high levels?
Through a Summer internship program, youth can contribute to the community.
These examples illustrate how deficit-based language focuses too much on what’s wrong, reinforces negative stereotypes or negative perceptions, and communicates the idea about certain things being inherent characteristics and not the result of circumstance.
My research prompted discussions that made it clear that deficit and asset-based language go deeper than just the words we use; they reflect a mindset.
Deficit-Based Mindset Versus Asset-Based Mindset
A deficit-based mindset presents a worldview in which we primarily only identify problems, lack, or need. An asset-based mindset presents a worldview in which we identify opportunities and positive outcomes.
Recently, I’ve come to realize how deficit based-mindset has affected my self-image and self-efficacy.
I’ve asked myself questions like “why am I not successful?” The problem with this question is it presents a narrative in which I was lacking or had an inherent problem. It frames myself as a failure which encouraged feelings of helplessness or depression.
Now that I’m aware of asset-based language, I reframe that question: what resources, people, information, etc., are available to help me succeed? Asking this question doesn’t guarantee success. However, it presents a narrative in which I’m not a failure. Notice how instead of suggesting a problem, it’s merely pointing to a circumstance; I’m in the process of achieving success. This narrative will likely cause us to identify opportunities for a positive outcome.
I’ll use another real-life example of mine to show how asset-based mindset can improve our relationships.
A woman I was dating once told me: “I don’t like that whenever we spend a lot of time together, I begin to neglect my fitness.”
Here’s how this can be reframed in an asset-oriented way: “How can we continue spending time together while ensuring my fitness does not become neglected?”
Her deficit-based language presented a narrative in which I was the problem. It made me feel defensive and disheartened. With asset-based language, we don’t blame anyone, nor do we even have to highlight a problem. Instead, we open a discussion about mutually beneficial opportunities.
In my research, I came across a video in which a non-profit leader speaks about the importance of narratives. He mentioned how people repeated the narrative of “Black kids lack positive male figures,” and since he didn’t have his father, he internalized that narrative. He began to speak it as his truth. But once someone challenged this notion, asking him to identify people like uncles, cousins, or even his mother’s boyfriend as positive influences, he realized the narrative he internalized was false.
As I’ve alluded to, we must be conscious about how our language and mindset present a narrative that can be either uplifting or discouraging. If someone had given the narrative of “encouraging Black children to identify positive male figures in their life can improve their outcomes,” then who knows how that might have positively impacted his self-image, growth, and development.
Another popular narrative is that first-generation college students are more prone to dropping out than students whose parents have a college degree. Fortunately, I never even heard of this narrative until I was already on my way to graduating. I’ve realized that the narrative I subconsciously internalized was that being a first-generation college student provides me extra motivation and dedication to obtain a college degree.
That narrative influenced me to overcome the many obstacles I faced while also seeking support as necessary. If I had internalized the deficit-based narrative, I would have given myself an excuse to give up when things got hard.
Despite the personal examples I’ve provided, all of this information is useless unless you apply it to your life. So, I’ll leave you with some homework that can help you apply this information and provide positive outcomes for yourself:
Identify ways in which you’ve used deficit or asset-based language to yourself. How did this impact your self-image or self-efficacy?
Identify ways in which you’ve used deficit or asset-based language within your relationships. Consider how this impacted the other person or the relationship. How could you have reframed the discussion with asset-based language?
Identify the narratives you internalize. Are they deficit-based or asset-based? How can you reframe them to be asset-based?
Find an asset-based narrative to apply to yourself. Consider how it will encourage positive outcomes for yourself.