Edited 11/8/2018 to change some slightly adult examples to be all-ages friendly, and to clarify an awkward statement.
Third person pronouns are words we use to refer to someone who isn’t you or me (such as “he” or “hers” or “them”). In English, third person pronouns are a remnant of the grammatical gender of Old English. Many modern languages use grammatical gender in ways that impact pronouns, and many other modern languages don’t use gendered pronouns at all. This post is about English pronoun usage only and may or may not apply to other languages.
Generally, third person pronouns are now used to indicate someone’s gender, and it’s common to think that we can tell someone’s gender — and therefore their pronoun — just by looking at them. This is based on assumptions that there are “correct” ways to look like a man or like a woman or even like a non-binary-gendered person. However, many people who use “he” or “she” as pronouns may not fit other people’s expectations of what a man or a woman looks like, many nonbinary people may look binary, and there are almost definitely many pronouns you haven’t heard of. Where possible, it’s good to ask people which pronouns they’d like used for themselves.
First read this: Robot Hugs “Pronoun Etiquette” comic
Here are some concepts I’d add:
- Not everywhere is safe to openly ask this question, as you may be outing a person as trans or at least opening the question of their gender in a space where others are reading them consistently without question. Sometimes you need to wait till you can talk to the person in private, or listen to how this person uses pronouns toward themself/how their friends refer to them.
- If you’re only asking people their pronouns when you read them as trans or as gender ambiguous, you’re probably making assumptions about what trans people ‘look’ like, what gender ambiguity looks like on which bodies (when are jeans and a t-shirt gender ambiguous? When aren’t they?), and what cis people ‘look’ like too.
- Don’t use it as a way to prompt someone to out themself as trans. Don’t follow asking someone’s pronoun with directly asking someone if they are trans. Asking someone’s pronoun is a tool to be more respectful, not more invasive, and it really isn’t about getting to know them better.
- Disagreeing with a person’s pronouns in favor of a nonbinary pronoun of your preference isn’t ‘better’ than disagreeing with a person’s usage of nonbinary pronouns. (Okay: “I have a lot of trouble with co/cos pronouns, are you comfortable with being called they/them/their?” Not okay: “They/them/their is grammatically incorrect, you should be using ze/zim/zer.”)
If a person responds to your pronoun question with “Can’t you tell? What are you trying to imply?” there’s a fair chance that either:
- You’re pushing at one of the issues above. Consider especially if you’re publicly asking someone who may read as a trans woman in a space that may be trans hostile, which is most of the spaces.
- You’re asking a cis person who doesn’t know anything about this idea of pronoun preferences. If you’re asking everyone anyway, then it’s very easy to use it as a brief teaching moment. If you only asked this one person because you read them as trans or as nonbinary, it’s very easy to use this as a teachable moment for yourself — and to consider that you’re probably not the first person to read them this way. If they’ve got a history of being read as trans, they may have built up some transphobia or at least some rigid thinking about gender to protect their own identity, which will impact how you can talk to them about gender too.
Suggestions for application of pronoun etiquette to facilitated groups:
- When going around with introductions, ask for people to provide their names as well as pronouns. “I’m Z and I go by he/him/his.” For structure, it helps to consistently provide that set of pronouns in that order (for memory – “He is hungry, give him the cookie, because it is his”) so that when someone introduces themself with an unfamiliar pronoun, people automatically have a way to learn to use it. “I’m Joe and I go by ze/zim/zers” = “Ze is hungry, give zim the cookie, because it is zers.” (Often, drop the ‘s’ at the end of the pronoun if you actually name the ‘cookie’ at the end there: it is her cookie, it is zer cookie, it is their cookie, etc. But if dropping the s makes the pronoun end with a vowel, you usually keep it: it is his cookie, or cos cookie. Ask if you’re not sure.)
- Ask people to not use gendering shorthand like “men’s/women’s pronouns”. Which men’s pronouns? Is calling yourself “she” always an indicator that you identify as a woman? (Hint: no.) Same applies for “gender-neutral” pronouns. This shorthand tends to reinforce the same assumptions about gender identity that we’re trying to avoid by using pronoun etiquette.
- If you don’t remember someone’s pronoun, asking is awesome, and also in the moment of making a point within the group instead of saying “what he was saying” you can make eye contact with the relevant person and gesture toward them and say, “what you were saying.” “What they were saying” is a good option if the person whose pronoun you don’t remember isn’t present at the moment.
- It’s not pronouns, but it’s related: don’t say “men, women, and transgender people.” Transgender isn’t a gender identity: some men and some women and some nonbinary people are transgender. “Men, women, and nonbinary people” is generally better if there is a specific need to identify groups by gender. “Everyone” or “people” are good ways to inclusively refer to, well, everyone, without making it about gender.
- Don’t apply pronoun etiquette behavior only when someone present appears to you to be non-binary: apply it to everyone as part of the structure of the group. Make your group a safer space for people with nonbinary identities to be open, present, and included, and make your group a safer space for binary-identified people to challenge thought and behavior patterns socially imposed upon them based on gender.
If someone prefers a pronoun that gives you difficulty, here are three things you can do:
- Practice privately. “I am going to meet zim for coffee, ze will be there at 3pm with zer dog.” You can even practice with pronouns that no one you know uses, just to get more familiar with using new pronouns on the fly. Take a look at Wiktionary’s list of third person singular gender neutral pronouns, or try out the Pronoun Dressing Room
- If you’re still struggling with a nonbinary pronoun (something that isn’t he/him/his or she/her/hers), ask if the person is comfortable with you using they/them/theirs, which is generally considered a respectful gender-neutral pronoun (and yes, it can be singular). The person may say no; respect that. This is a valid thing to ask if you’re having trouble with binary pronouns too, but only if you’re having trouble with everyone who uses that pronoun: if you don’t have a problem remembering how to call other people “she”, it’s probably going to be really weird and disrespectful if you ask Alice if you can call her “they”.
- If you’re still struggling with a particular pronoun, just avoid using pronouns for people who use it and aren’t comfortable with an alternate pronoun you’re better at. It can be awkward, but so’s using the wrong pronoun, and misgendering is actually hurtful and erasive on top of being awkward. I like to practice by taking sentences with pronouns and rewriting them without pronouns: “That cookie is Joe’s!”