You Can Get Better at Using the Right Pronouns (Without Being Offensive)

You Can Get Better at Using the Right Pronouns (Without Being Offensive)
Photo: DCStockPhotography, Shutterstock

When you use someone’s correct pronouns, you’re showing them a basic level of respect. Still, many well-meaning people find themselves confused or even intimidated by the terrain of different gender identities — especially when speaking to someone you’re not particularly close with, like an employee, or your kid’s friend from school.

You’ve heard that you don’t want to assume someone’s pronouns based only on appearances, but maybe you’re still hesitant to ask someone forthright. What if it seems like you’re singling them out, or your attempt to be respectful turns out to be invasive?

If you feel uncertain how to navigate people’s pronouns when you don’t know them well, here are some tips and reminders for being respectful.

Some very basic basics

Bear with me stating the obvious, but pronouns are nothing new. You’ve always used them in place of someone’s name whenever you refer to someone in the third person. Pronouns like “he” and “she” carry with them an implied gender. What has become increasingly relevant is the fact that “he” and “she” are not always accurate to how an individual actually identifies.

According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, one-third of teens and people in their early 20s know someone who uses pronouns other than “she” or “he” — and this number is set to grow. Additionally, gender is a spectrum, and people can feel like multiple or no genders at different times. Although it may take some getting used to, pronouns are an important part of our identity.

“The first form of discrimination and prejudice is denial that a group or person exists…in relation to trans and gender diverse people, the use of incorrect pronouns is seen as that denial,” educator and speaker Sally Goldner tells ABC Australia.

Using someone’s correct pronouns is important to validate their humanity. And no, it won’t be grammatically incorrect.

Conversational tips to respect someone’s pronouns

Say your own pronouns first

If you’d like someone to tell you their pronouns, the easiest way to do it is by saying your own. People usually take the opening to reciprocate. Plus, the act of saying your pronouns helps normalize the fact that we shouldn’t all be making assumptions based solely on appearances.

If you’re someone who runs meetings at work, share your pronouns at the beginning of every meeting, even if it’s with people who meet regularly. Pronouns can and do change for people, especially if they’re genderfluid. It’s helpful to designate a recurring space for people to share and recognise how to address each other.

Use gender-neutral pronouns until proven otherwise

Gender neutral pronouns are also useful if someone doesn’t know the gender of the person they are speaking about, e.g. “Oh, Alex is coming? Remind me what their job is again?”

Try to make the singular “they/them/theirs” your default pronoun for people when you don’t know how they personally identify.

Ask them

Just ask, “What are your pronouns?” Or, “Which pronouns do you use?” It’s acceptable and likely appreciated. Try to avoid using the word “preferred” when asking for someone’s pronouns. “Preferred” tends to imply “optional.”

One more note here: Try not to go out of your way to single out people who tend to look more androgynous — this only enforces the idea that other people are “obviously” a man or woman because of how they look. Key to normalizing all the different identities out there is having an open mind with everyone you meet, no matter what you instinctively assume about their gender.

Actually listen to their response

Once someone tells you what pronouns they use, don’t ignore them by continuing to default to “they.” For instance, a trans woman who uses “she/her” pronouns may feel invalidated if you keep referring to her as “they,” even if you mean well.

Final thoughts

As gender identity keeps breaking out of pre-assigned boxes, we’re all going to slip up from time to time. If you’re worried about the backlash of offending someone, try to give that person some credit. While getting misgendered can be intensely painful for that person, chances are they will be patient and understanding with the learning curve you’re trying to overcome. Most of all, they’ll appreciate the fact that you’re going out of your way to be respectful.

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