Pronouns have become a topic of increasing interest as individuals and organizations look to create settings that are welcoming to people of all genders. But many leaders aren’t quite sure how, when, why and if to ask about pronouns — and that’s understandable! Much of this is new and unfamiliar territory.
What are pronouns and why do they matter?
Pronouns are a really important way that our gender is reflected to the world. Pronouns are the words that you use to refer to someone in the third person in place of their name (he/him, she/her, and they/them are most commonly used).
There are also a variety of non-binary pronouns which you can learn more about from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and some people may even use numerous pronouns. For example, someone might indicate that they use ‘he/they” pronouns. In this case, using either pronoun set when referring to them is fine.
Honorifics, some of which convey gender (like Mr., Miss, Mrs., and Ms.) can have differing personal meanings to different people. Just like with pronouns, using the correct honorific is a sign of respect. The most common gender-neutral honorific is Mx. (often pronounced ‘mix’) and can be used in place of any other honorific.
Many cisgender people (people whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth) have never had to think about their pronouns and may take them for granted as their pronouns have always aligned with their gender identity.
Many people whose identities do not fit the binary or whose gender doesn’t align with their sex assigned at birth face being misgendered daily. It is one of many experiences which can make them feel disrespected and marginalized. Using the correct pronouns for someone is a crucial way to show that you recognize, acknowledge, and accept their gender.
Additionally, you may hear people use the term “preferred pronouns,” but we recommend not using the term “preferred.” Gender isn’t a preference — it’s just who we are! Pronouns reflect our identity to the world and thus they aren’t a preference. Learn more about pronoun options and how to use them on Reimagine Gender’s website.
How are Pronouns and Gender Related?
Pronouns are a part of our gender identity. Although our pronouns are informed by and reflect our gender, pronouns alone can’t tell you someone’s gender. Someone’s pronouns only inform what pronouns they use — nothing more.
There are no rules for which genders use which pronouns. Pronouns often align with someone’s gender in the traditional way many of us have learned (for example, a man will use he/him pronouns), but this isn’t always the case, and you can never tell which pronouns someone uses just by looking at them. It’s important to note too that not everyone uses pronouns; when asked for their pronouns they may ask that you use their name instead. This is true for many agender folks, but it is not exclusive to them.
How do I ask about Pronouns?
In instances where you know your interactions with someone will be brief, you may be able to skip pronouns and instead use gender-inclusive language, such as in customer service interactions or talking about someone who has come and gone quickly (e.g., Could you show this customer where the folders are? The delivery person put it over here).
In more intimate settings where you will have frequent interactions, it’s ideal to learn people’s pronouns. Workplaces can normalize this by inviting people to share pronouns (if they’re comfortable doing so) in introductions at meetings, in email signatures, and on business cards.
Asking about pronouns can be pretty simple and straightforward. When doing so, it’s best to share your pronouns first, at which point you can ask someone about their pronouns. Resources on how to navigate these conversations can be found on MyPronouns.org. It is important to note that no one should ever be required or forced to share their pronouns.
What if I Make a Mistake?
It happens. Consistently using the proper pronouns will take practice.
If you realize you’ve made a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize, and/or thank someone for raising it, and move on. Don’t belabor the point, apologize profusely, or ask someone to explain their pronouns or identity further. Doing so places those who have been misgendered in an awkward position to tend to your emotions. Do your part to make these exchanges as respectful and easy as possible for them.
Additionally, you should respectfully correct people if you hear someone using the wrong pronouns for someone else, with the caveat being, you should be confident that person is open with their pronouns. If they are not, respect their privacy by using the pronouns they use publicly.
It may feel awkward to correct someone but make it simple – you can even model how to correctly use the pronouns while moving the conversation forward (e.g., Actually, Sabrina uses they/them pronouns. And yes, they will be joining us for the meeting on Wednesday).
Creating inclusive environments and practices starts with a commitment to learning about gender. We are all learners in one way or another so be patient with yourself and others. Mistakes happen; people can see beyond the mistake to the care and intention to be respectful – that’s what they’ll recall later about the conversation. If you have questions or want to know more, the team at Reimagine Gender is here to help.