So you must have come across bios that go like “he/him”, “they/them”, “she/they”, etc. over your Instagram feed, right? It may confuse some of you. That’s because for words that say so much about us, we probably think about them very little. Gender pronouns, the “he” or “she” in a sentence, are almost invisible in everyday English and yet they carry an important piece of our identity. However, in our bid to provide a warm, welcoming, and inclusive environment for one another, we need to create a climate of understanding appropriate and affirming ways to speak to and about others.
One of the most common ways in which people are unintentionally excluded is by being incorrectly gendered. In English, we often refer to people not by their name, but by pronouns such as “he” and “she”. Because these pronouns have gender implied, they can often result in inaccurate portrayals of who people are. In order to support those interested in what pronouns are and why they matter,
So, why do pronouns matter?
Using pronouns to talk about somebody is the same as using a person’s name. While you may not give much thought to your name, many people feel a strong sense of pride in their name. Some people are more comfortable with their first name instead of their middle name (or vice versa), others, a derivation of their name or a nickname. How somebody asks for you to refer to them is how people make space for themselves. Similarly, the pronouns with which someone identifies are how they feel valued and seen.
We have been conditioned to assume gender based on what people look like, and that can result in harmful messages. Taking the time to learn and use someone’s pronouns is a small gesture that makes a big difference!
Interestingly, multitudes of pronouns which people identify with exist, even though most people are familiar with the concept of “He/Him/His” referring to a man or boy, and “She/Her/Hers” referring to a woman or girl. These pronouns have a variety of origins; some are revived from Old English, others have been created by literary works, and still others have been borrowed from other languages.
One that people often struggle with is the singular ‘They’. We are taught throughout schooling that ‘They’ can only be used to refer to a group of people, but that is simply not true! An easy way to understand how the singular ‘They’ is used is to think about a lost item. If you find an umbrella in a crowded room, someone will often stand up and ask “Did anyone lose their umbrella?”
Now, mistakes are bound to happen. We have been taught our whole lives to believe there are only two genders, and that we can tell what someone’s gender is based on looking at them. It is completely okay to feel embarrassed, confused, or apologetic for misgendering someone, but the important thing is to acknowledge your mistake and move on. You don’t need to feel like you owe the person a tearful explanation of why you made the mistake; rather, a simple “I’m sorry, they…” in the moment will usually suffice.
If you realize that you have been misgendering someone for a while, reaching out to them to acknowledge your mistake and apologizing is a great first step. Saying “I wanted to apologize for referring to you by the wrong pronouns. I know you use “she/her” pronouns and I will make sure to not make that mistake again.” shows that you understand that you’ve made a mistake AND that you will actively take steps to correct it.
It is important to note that people may respond differently when they are misgendered. Some people will move on quickly, others may get upset. Whatever the response, being sincere in interacting with that person will help maintain the relationship.
To avoid making this mistake, you can simply ask someone you are interacting with what their pronouns are! Asking for someone’s pronouns shows that you are being thoughtful about the lived experience of whomever you are interacting with. Many people have never thought about their pronouns, and may not know how to respond when asked; that’s okay! This is an opportunity to talk about what pronouns are, why they are important, and why it is important to ask for them!
The best way to ask for someone’s pronouns is to simply say something like “What pronouns do you use?” or “What are your pronouns?”. If you are unsure of someone’s pronouns, it is typically OK to use ‘They/Them/Theirs’. It is as simple as it can get, really.