Updated: Apr 20
Or, ‘Dear God, how do I refer to — Him? Her? Them? Zed or something?’
Photo by Dom Brassey Draws Comics on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Who knew something once as boring as pronouns could be such a touchy subject?
Several years ago I belonged to a Canadian writers group and I remember someone who’d written an entire book about pronouns. She sought helpful advice about getting it published, because even publishers specializing in writing and grammar didn’t want an entire book about them.
This was a few years before a previously unknown Toronto university professor named Jordan Peterson turned pronouns into a worldwide culture war.
I don’t know if she ever found a space on the Indigo’s/Chapters shelves for her brave little non-gender-concerned pronoun book, but if she didn’t, maybe it’s time to pull it out of mothballs again for a rewrite.
Now, she can add useful information people need rather than — whatever it was she found so fascinating about pronouns in 2007.
I left the pronouns fuss to depressed 19-year-old university snowflakes until I watched a LinkedIn training video a few years ago, conducted by a….person. I didn’t know what pronouns they used but I thought of them as ‘her’. They looked like a guy, but sounded like a woman. I liked them. They had a nice, friendly smile and an engaging way of speaking. I thought, She sounds like someone I’d like to be friends with, but what would I do if I met her? What would I call her? What if her name was something unenlightening, like Pat?
The ongoing SNL sketch about ‘Pat’ from the 1990s would be considered offensive today, but it deftly illustrated the discomfort and confusion people felt about non-gender-conforming others before we had the language and knowledge to appreciate it.
I hadn’t met any gender-non-conformers myself but I began to worry. I’d met some perfectly lovely transwomen who didn’t offer pronouns but my assumptions were spot-on. Thus far though, no Pats.
I looked up the trainer’s LinkedIn profile and they didn’t offer their pronouns. I can’t remember their name but I think it was female.
I began to notice a few Linkedin members stating their preferred pronouns. Some were diversity specialists which made sense. Few needed to, apart from the courtesy for their profession. Anyone could have guessed.
Knowing how to refer to someone would go a long way in addressing some of the fear and discomfort surrounding folks who don’t conform to gender expectations. Seems a pretty small ask.
Recently I visited an LGBTQ organization website and one officer was a person with a female name who looked exactly like a man. I clicked the bio. It referred to ‘she’ and ‘her’ throughout. Okay, helpful!
Out of curiosity, I visited her LinkedIn profile where she looked as male as she did on the website.
Exactly the sort of person who would make my stomach tighten with nervousness if I hadn’t seen her bio.
I found other non-conformers on LinkedIn who also didn’t make it clear.
These folks must know they don’t conform, unlike the blithely clueless ‘Pat’ from Saturday Night Live. Offering their pronouns would be less stressful for those of us who just want to get along with others without creating discomfort or drama for them.
A few weeks ago I embarrassed myself by messing up pronouns with someone I couldn’t see. I called a customer for a client whose freelance sales campaign I was working on to reinvigorate a ‘dead customers’ list.
“Hello,” said a man’s voice.
“Hi, can I please speak with Johanna?”
“This is Johanna.”
“You’re Johanna?” I said. It sort of slipped out but my first thought was — psycho controlling husband.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get it wrong,” I said. I flashed on that Seinfeld episode with the man who sounds like a woman.
“Oh, don’t feel bad. I’m on a hormone treatment that lowers my voice.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, relieved not to have screwed up after all. I’d read about women who took such hormones for female health problems who experienced that side effect.
I asked her how she was doing, how was she surviving the pandemic, and in general reminding her the client still existed. That was the protocol for a customer list friendly and loyal to a company with a very high customer satisfaction rate.
I got to updating the contact information. “Obviously the phone number’s still good,” I said. “And is blahblahblah still your email address, Johanna?”
“Yes,” she said, “and it’s John now, not Johanna.”
It hadn’t occurred to me I might be talking to a transman.
She wasn’t a woman experiencing a side effect, he was a man in transition who wanted the deeper voice.
“No problem,” I said. “I’ll update that too.”
“Thank you so much!” he said with more gratitude than I expected. “That’s so kind of you!”
As though I was doing him a huge favor instead of my job, which was also to make sure the customer information was correct.
I got off the phone thinking how nice he’d been about it. No drama. No tears. No remonstrations about what an insensitive unwoke asshole I was.
Just a grown-up man-in-progress who didn’t pitch a tantrum.
And I thought, “I really hate social media.”
What should have been a minor conundrum over the world’s most uninteresting words had become an explosive culture war thanks to unsocial members with too much time on their hands on media platforms.
Was it okay to ask for pronouns? Who would be pleased, and who would be offended?
Would it turn into a galaxy-wide Twitter fiasco if I guessed wrong?
Last year I met an aspiring diversity trainer in a women’s professional empowerment course and I asked her: What do I do if I meet someone whose pronouns I’m not sure about?
“You can always ask,” she said, “but another way to do it is to offer your pronouns first. Hi, I’m Nicole, and my pronouns are she/her. How are you?”
Helpful. But still, with the potential to embarrass someone, since I don’t customarily go around introducing myself with my pronouns, and wouldn’t do it with people who clearly don’t have a pronoun identity differential. Everybody can figure them out. I can figure out everyone else’s.
I haven’t had to try this yet, mostly because meeting new people doesn’t happen much for me anymore. Maybe someday. If Ontario ever gets out of stay-at-home lockdown.
I’ve become more aware of gender non-conformance and why I still feel a little uncomfortable about it. It comes down to this:
Snowflakery. Others, not me.
I give social media waaaaaay too much of my power.
I believe that when I meet someone, no matter who they are, no matter what they look like, my responsibility is a baseline courtesy. You are who you are, and my job is to treat you the way I’d like to be treated, with a default decency.
It’s important to remember social media isn’t representative of the world; it’s one expression of our collective multiple biases, prejudices, fears, cognitive distortions, self-serving personal narratives, and most importantly, a way to take out our hostilities on total strangers, often behind the cowardly protection of a fake or anonymous account, because it’s less psychologically invasive than therapy.
Pronouns get way too much attention, in my opinion, but in order to keep the peace for everyone I would respectfully submit that anyone who clearly non-conforms make it clear to the rest of us which pronouns you prefer.
We’re not mind readers.
So what do you do when you meet a non-gender-conformer for the first time and don’t know how to refer to them?
Here’s something awkward: I wanted to reach out to my somewhat ambiguous-looking aforementioned aspiring diversity trainer colleague for help, and when I looked her up on LinkedIn…no pronouns.
I know which she prefers but — she needs to provide them for those who don’t know her. Uh, did I mention awkward? For an article like this?
I turned instead to an article on Workopolis about accommodating transgender and non-conforming folk advocating what my colleague did: Offer your pronouns first. The other person might not reciprocate, but that’s on them. Another way to handle it is to ask, How would you like to be referred to? The article points out we might meet someone whose professional name is Michael, so we ask, Is it okay to call you Mike?
What’s not okay: Are you trans?
Its first bit of advice combines the two previous bits. It offers a more proactive question: Hi, I’m So-and-So, and I like to be referred to as ‘they’. How shall I refer to you?
But don’t force it.
I figure, if they’ve been given an opportunity to share their pronouns and they haven’t, others will likely pick some, and it may be the wrong ones. One is always able to politely correct them.
I haven’t found any firm rules yet, so I propose we make it a rule of common courtesy that when someone offers their pronouns, you offer your own in return, even if you’re as macho as Stallone or as girly as Jolie.
For me, pronouns are neither interesting nor a big deal. I accept that some folks are changing or identifying as something other than what they were born with and it doesn’t much matter to me why. My goal is a drama-free social experience for everyone.
Chances are you’re a far more interesting person than your pronouns, so let’s move on.
This first appeared on Medium in May 2021.