Pronouns: Getting it right when you get it wrong.
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
Pronouns are all something that we can sometimes make mistakes on. Our team shares the techniques they use to help improve their pronoun skills - why not try out some of these too?
As trans visibility has entered the mainstream, pronouns have grown to be a hot topic across the political spectrum. While most people have an awareness that using the correct pronouns for trans people is important, many do not really understand why misgendering can be so painful. Similarly, when people will insist that they are trying to use the correct pronouns for a trans person, it’s often obvious that they have put little to no effort into challenging the way they perceive us - which is a common culprit of consistent but accidental misgendering.
Take the time to think about how you would feel if everyone around you started referring to you as if you were someone else. If you can understand how this would be frustrating or distressing then you can understand why it’s so important to gender people correctly.
The question is: how? Many cisgender people mean well but just can’t seem to shift to using a new pronoun when a co-worker comes out as trans, or permanently struggle with the pronouns of people who are gender non-conforming. The missing component in this equation is often a lack of practice. Changing the pronouns you use for someone is similar to breaking any other habit, it just requires a little patience and a commitment to change. It’s also a skill that will get easier with time, once you’ve managed it for one person, you’ll find it easier to do the next time you meet a trans person.
We’ve compiled the following tips to help strengthen your pronoun skills:
1. Re-contextualise the person in your head.
Take time to think about the person you’re struggling to gender correctly. Correlate them with their actual gender identity. Have you seen them become happier as they’ve expressed their true self? What ways do they express their gender? You can try repeating to yourself, “_____ is a woman/man/non-binary person”.
When you have a strong sense of your own gender identity, having this aspect of yourself constantly disrespected or ignored by the people around you can feel like a process of gradual gaslighting, being told over and over again that you are not who you know yourself to be. This often manifests in increased anxiety and self-doubt. Despite this, it can be difficult for people to assert their pronouns when misgendered. Nina Taylor of Dentsu gave us their perspective:
“An issue that I face as a non-binary person is the constant battle between asserting myself through communicating my correct pronouns and the desire to not make other people feel awkward or embarrassed when correcting them, as well as drawing any unwanted attention to myself. I think this will evolve with time, but right now what works for me is to correct people who I will encounter multiple times in my life and to save energy by not correcting people who play a more fleeting role”.
2. Practise talking with someone else.
Ask a friend if you can practise talking about the person using their correct pronouns. Tell them a story about that person and ask them to correct you when you slip up. Take time to actively think as you speak rather than going on auto-pilot. Ask your conversation partner to ask you questions about the person to get used to a more back and forth conversation.
It can also be useful to practise saying thank you when you’re corrected. Don’t derail the conversation, make a big deal out of it or start an excuse, just say thank you, correct yourself and move on.
3. Write it out.
If you’re struggling to find someone to practise with or it still isn’t sticking, try writing about the person rather than speaking aloud. Writing something down will help you commit it to memory and will further connect the person with their correct pronouns in your head.
4. Correct yourself always.
It’s important to correct yourself always, regardless of whether people are around to hear it. Correcting yourself and making note every time you make a mistake with someone’s pronouns forces you to be accountable and contributes to breaking the overall habit.
You should correct others where possible too. This is good practice for yourself but also contributes to helping others break their habits too.
5. Don’t make trans people hold your hand through the process.
Trans people are often made to feel like their transitions are a burden on the people around them, so reminding them that you’re finding it difficult to remember their new pronouns can make them feel awkward, guilty or that they are inconveniencing you.
6. Be discreet and empathetic.
It can be intimidating to have someone ask for your pronouns in front of a large group of people. Offering your own pronouns first before asking for someone else's can help put them at ease. Where possible, be discreet by asking quietly or pulling the person aside briefly.
Coming out as trans or non-binary can be a scary prospect, especially in professional settings, but it can also be incredibly rewarding when mustering the courage to do so is met with support from your co-workers. Olivia Esposito, the Global Chair for Conde Nast’s PRIDE ERG, recalls her experience of coming out in a workplace for the first time:
“I came out as a trans woman while I was working in retail. I remember the anxiety mixed with euphoria while telling my Store Manager and the grace she demonstrated in welcoming me. I remember the first team meeting where I finally introduced my true-self: some colleagues were excited, some were unbothered, a few were visibly uncomfortable. Most of all I remember the moment I wore my new badge, it felt liberating.”
Consider the context you’re in. If you’re at a women-only event and ask for a trans woman’s pronouns but don’t find yourself doing the same with cis women, you’re inadvertently singling out that trans woman as “other”.
7. Don’t make it a big deal.
When we make mistakes, many of us instinctually jump to justifying our actions to diffuse our own sense of guilt but this thought process is rarely comforting to hear for the person affected. It puts them in a position where they have to minimise their own hurt to prioritise ours. Apologising, correcting yourself and moving on is the best way to handle your slip ups.
In moments where the process may feel difficult or frustrating, remember that gendering people correctly has a much bigger impact than you might think - you’re supporting and empowering trans and non-binary people to be themselves when you use their pronouns. Being recognised for who we are is something we all deserve by default, it doesn’t need to be earned, so we should all make an active effort to manifest that for each other.
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