Pronouns: A How-To

What are Pronouns?  

Pronouns are the way that we refer to people in place of their name or in third person (referring to that person while talking to someone else). Often, pronouns have an implied gender such as “he” to refer to a man/boy or “she” to refer to a woman/girl. People may also make assumptions about the gender of a person based upon their appearance or their name. In both cases, these assumptions aren’t always correct, accurate, or helpful. In fact, in our workplaces, schools, and communities, these messages can be harmful and damaging to relationships.  

When you use someone’s correct pronouns, it serves to create an inclusive environment where you demonstrate that you care for and respect them. Just as we wouldn’t want to make up a nickname for someone and use it against their will, it can be just as upsetting or disrespectful to refer to someone using incorrect pronouns. Actively choosing to not use the pronouns someone has shared that they go by is harassment and implies that intersex, transgender,
non-binary, and gender nonconforming people do not or should not exist.   

How do I use Pronouns? 

When someone shares their pronouns, it is an indication of how they would like to be referred to in the third person. Pronouns in the first (referring to yourself– e.g., “I”) or second (referring to the person you’re speaking to– e.g., “you”) do not change. Most people think of pronouns as they fall within the gender binary– with men using he/him/his and women using she/her/hers. However gender neutral pronouns such as they, ze, and xe exist and are often used by non-binary people, who do not associate themselves with genders of man or woman.

Gender neutral pronouns are also useful if someone doesn’t know the gender of the person they are speaking about (“The pizza delivery person is at the door, give them a good tip!”).

Some people give options when sharing their pronouns. For example a non-binary person could use both “he/him/his,” and “they/them/theirs” pronouns.  

Here are examples of third-person pronouns that you may commonly hear used:

Want to practice your pronouns? https://www.minus18.org.au/pronouns-app/ 

It’s important to note that we should never assume someone’s pronouns. While the majority of people may use ‘she/her’ or ‘he/him,’ we still cannot always tell by looking at someone. Pronouns commonly have a gendered association, however, anyone of any gender can use any pronouns that fit for them. Everyone has pronouns, not just transgender, nonbinary, or intersex people. Keep in mind that some people may use more than one set of pronouns to refer to themselves (e.g., ‘she/her’ and ‘they/them’). In these instances, you can use either set when referring to this person.  

What if I don’t know what pronouns someone uses?  

If you don’t know what pronouns someone uses, you can do one of three things:  

  1. Use “They”: Use singular “they/them/theirs” for this person until you have the opportunity to ask about their pronouns.
  2. Ask!: It’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone what pronouns they use. See the next section for tips and methods!
  3. Use their name: Use their name until you learn their pronouns.
    a. Be aware that it can be challenging to do this without practice. Even though we think that we will only use someone’s name instead of pronouns in an attempt to not misgender them, we often use pronouns without realizing it, so it is easy to make a mistake.

    If someone has told you thier pronous, and you use thier name or they instead of the pronouns that they told you, this is still misgendering.

How do I ask what pronouns to use? 

Our clients often ask, “How do I know what pronoun to use?” and the easiest way is to ask. Sometimes people get nervous about asking for pronouns, because they aren’t sure how to ask. 

The easiest way to lean into asking someone about their pronouns is to share your own:

“Hello, my name is Charlie and I go by ‘he, him, his’ pronouns.” 

By opening the conversation with your pronouns, you are signaling to the other person that you are familiar with the concept of pronouns and may be safe to talk to, particularly if you’re speaking to a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, you are increasing the normalcy of sharing of pronouns in public spaces and interactions. Importantly, you’re creating an opening to ask for their pronouns. Using our example above, we could say: 

“Hello, my name is Charlie and I go by ‘he, him, his’ pronouns. What pronouns do you use?” 
or
“How would you like me to refer to you?”  

Both of these models create the opportunity for someone to reciprocate the sharing their pronouns with you in their introduction. It can be a bit awkward the first few times you do this, but practice makes proficient! Further, you may get some folks who are confused when you introduce yourself with pronouns. It can be helpful to have a planned elevator pitch that you can share about why you’re sharing your pronouns.  

Please see the following video for more information and insights on how to share pronouns. 

[Video-Sharing Your Pronouns by the LGBT Equity Center]

 

What if I make a mistake?

Mistakes happen! Everyone makes them. It’s what we do when we make a mistake that is most important. Here are some strategies on what to do when you’ve made a mistake or witnessed someone make a mistake on someone’s pronouns. 

When you make a mistake: 

If you use the wrong pronouns for someone in a conversation and you immediately recognize it. Correct yourself, apologize, and move on in the conversation. It’s important here not to make the situation about yourself, your intention, or make excuses about the mistake. The best way to demonstrate that you care about this individual and are supportive of them is to correct the error and move forward.

Example: “Oh she’s a great friend. I’m sorry, I meant they are a great friend. They always send me funning videos to cheer me up.”  

Avoid dragging out the apology and making the other person comfort you for your mistake. We all make mistakes, and even if you feel terrible about it, it isn’t about you.   

When others make a mistake:

If someone isn’t present when their pronouns are misused, it is our job to hold others accountable to using the correct pronouns. When in a conversation with someone else who makes a mistake, there are a couple of ways to navigate the conversation. Before correcting the individual who made the mistake, consider whether the person who has been misgendered has shared about their pronouns in all areas of their life. Some people may only use certain pronouns in various aspects of their lives (e.g., using ‘they/them’ at work but ‘he/him’ at home). Some people make this choice for their own personal safety, or because they simply don’t feel comfortable being “out” in certain contexts. If you are not sure if the person in question has shared their pronouns with the person you are speaking to, then ask them first before trying the following correction strategies.  

One strategy is to just respond to the individual who has made the mistake using the correct pronouns.  

Example: Someone says, “Oh she’s a great friend.” Your response can be, “You’re right, they are a great friend.”  

In this instance, you’re just repeating what was said with the correct pronoun. In many cases, if that person is aware of the pronouns, they will correct themselves as well.  

If the person who made the mistake is not aware and the individual who has been misgendered has shared their pronouns in all areas of their life, then best practice here is to gently correct the person who made the mistake.  

Example: Someone says, “Oh she’s a great friend.” Your response can be, “You’re right, they are a great friend. Also, just so you know, Sam uses ‘they/them/theirs’ pronouns.”  

Being gentle in the response is appropriate in these instances since we are operating under the assumption that this person did not know about the pronouns before the conversation.  

Intentional Misgendering and Deadnaming

Misgendering is when someone intentionally uses the wrong pronoun for another person. When someone uses the wrong pronoun for someone else, it is a hurtful experience. It is hurtful because it communicates that the person’s gender and experiences are not valid or respected. When someone is misgendered over and over, it can cause significant emotional pain.

[Video-Pronouns by Cut]

Similarly, deadnaming is when the wrong name (usually an old name) is used for someone. This is often seen for individuals using the birth name of a transgender or non-binary person. When this is done intentionally, it communicates that the person’s gender and experiences or not valid or respected. 

Best Practices for Pronouns 

  • Share your pronouns as a part of your introductions.  
  • Share pronouns at the beginning of every meeting, even with folks who you have been regularly meeting or know. Pronouns can and do change for people, sometimes regularly if they are genderfluid. Including pronouns as a regular practice for introductions provides space for people to share and be aware of how to refer to people who are new to the environment.  
  • Avoid using the word “preferred” in front of pronouns because it insinuates that the pronouns are optional. Instead, just say “my pronouns are” or “their pronouns are”.
  • Add your pronouns to your business cards and email addresses. You can also include a link to this webpage for folks who may want more information on pronouns. For example:  

Emma Smith (pronouns: she/her)
Want to learn more about pronouns? https://www.diversitycenterneo.org/about-us/pronouns/

or
Emma Smith 
Pronouns: She/her/hers
Want to learn more about pronouns? https://www.diversitycenterneo.org/about-us/pronouns/

Gender Inclusive Language 

Continue on the journey to build a more inclusive environment by eliminating language that assumes the genders and pronouns of attendees in a space. When we use language that is gendered it eliminates the experiences and identities of others who are in the room. For instance, saying “gentlemen” to a room that is 50% men and 50% women would not be acceptable because half of the room is women. Here are some examples of language that could be used:  

Instead of “Yes, ma’am” or “Good morning, sir,” you could say:  

  • Good morning.
  • Yes, please.
  • Thank you! 

When referring to specific people, you do not want to assume their gender. You could say:  

  • The person wearing black 
  • The person with their hand raised
  • The individual who just spoke
  • The person standing over here (gestures) 

Instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls,” or other similar gendered-language, you could say: 

  • Everyone 
  • Colleagues 
  • Friends 
  • Folks 
  • Students 
  • Children 

Instead of “he or she” or “s/he” when talking or writing about a person whose gender is not known, you could say: 

  • They 
  • That person 
  • The client 
  • The guest 

Rather than saying “men and women” you could say:  

  • Everyone 
  • People of all genders 
  • All people 
  • Women, men, and nonbinary people 

 

Suggestions adapted from MyPronouns.org

Want to learn more about pronouns, LGBTQ identities and other diversity, equity, and inclusion topics? Contact our team for a free consultation at programs@diversitycenterneo.org. We work with schools, non-profit organizations, and businesses, and can’t wait to work with you.

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