The first workshop I attended where we were asked to go around the circle and state our preferred pronouns, I froze. It was one of those moments where you can hear that teacher, the one who always said “one day you will use this information” in your head. Which was a pronoun again? Before or after the description of the thing, or is it around the stuff where you have the action? After a few people had said theirs, I figured out what seemed to be the system, and managed to produce one when it came to my turn. My heart rate went back to a respectable level, and palms were quickly wiped clean. Thinking back, it was an interesting moment that brought a few issues to a head. First, it exposed a level of privilege that as a cis person who conforms to the physical expectations of my gender, I’ve never had to think about what pronoun to use (or even what a pronoun is). Second, it opened up some possibilities- I had this idea that there is a wide variety of gender identities that anyone can access, but I didn’t know how you actually did that. The thought that I could have control over my gender identity when engaging in discussion during a workshop felt exciting and empowering. Such a simple question- “what is your preferred pronoun?”- can convey a lot of respect.
Though it’s a simple question, it encapsulates some pretty important concepts- namely, respect for everyone, especially the misidentified, and an acknowledgment of gender fluidity. These are important, and hopefully there will be an ongoing conversation on this blog about some specifics. In the meantime, this is article is more of a practical, how-to guide about what pronouns are and how to use them.
What’s a Pronoun
Back to the basics and the original word that threw me into a panic- pronoun. According to the Random House Dictionary, a pronoun is “any member of a small class of words found in many languages that are used as replacements or substitutes for nouns and noun phrases”. If you remember our friend the noun (person, place, or thing), when someone asks you what your preferred pronoun is, they are basically asking you what you want your name or personhood to be replaced with. So instead of people saying “Sally wants that” or “That person wants that”, they can use a pronoun and say, “She wants that”. Which brings us to the next point- pronouns can be gendered.
Gender and Pronouns
We encounter a lot of gendered pronouns: she, he, his, and hers. These are often used based on assumptions about other people’s gender that we perceive, which is unfortunate because for many people gender isn’t clear cut or fixed. To the person who has been classified into a gender category to which they don’t identify, these assumptions can be disrespectful.
There are gender neutral pronouns- “they” being the most commonly used one. It is easy to incorporate they/their/them into regular conversation. You might be thinking “hey, isn’t ‘they’ plural?”. While it is used in the plural more commonly, it can be adopted in the singular for gender neutrality- you may have also seen the singular in more formal documents before. One you may not have heard of is “ze”. Pronounced “zee” like the way American’s say the last letter of the alphabet, it is the he/she equivalent. Here is a chart about some pronunciation details that is easier to follow than any written description I’ve found. It also contains pronouns I’ve never heard of that are gender neutral- interesting for the more linguistically inclined to peruse, and some might seem catchy enough for your own use.
Bringing it into Your Conversations
So now you know that people are addressed with pronouns, some of those pronouns are gendered, and you don’t want to be disrespectful by using the wrong pronoun that makes someone uncomfortable. What to do? The easiest way to find out, as always, is to ask. “Hey, what is your preferred pronoun?” is a great way to kick off a conversation, either about whom the person is that you’ve just met or, if you are responded to with a blank stare, a quick exchange on what you meant- does the person want to be referred to as he, she, they, or perhaps ze? It’s worth the possibility of a little confusion at first if you can end at a place where you now can address them respectfully. This is also an opportunity to introduce the concepts of pronouns to other people if they’ve never heard of such a thing.
In a larger group, an alternative may be to start introducing yourself with your own pronoun. “Hey, nice to meet you, my name is Lee and you can refer to me as he or they”. This also brings up the concept of pronouns, and may make other people feel more confident about asserting their own preferences.
Outside of introductions, it’s important to keep in mind that pronouns may change- checking in with people you know will allow you to continue a respectful relationship that is mindful of their preferences.
That’s it! Simple stuff, but practicing proper pronouns shows a lot of respect to the people around you.