What are pronouns?
Pronouns are the words we use to refer to people when we’re not talking directly to them. Often, they have gendered implications when we use them.
We might talk about Ben, and how he has a nice shirt on, and how we might want to compliment him on his taste in fashion.
Or we might talk about Yasmin, and how brilliant her recent portfolio was. She has helped you before with your work, and you really admire her.
Or even we might talk about Alex, and how they recently got offered a new job. You’re going to miss them in the workplace, but you know this was their dream job!
While you may be quite familiar with using he/him and she/her when referring to people, you might feel unfamiliar with using they/them for a single person. However, we use they/them pronouns regularly for single people – for example, you may be driving in your car and suddenly someone pulls out in front of you and gives you little time to slow down. They clearly need to get more driving lessons, if this is how they’re acting! You hope no one else has to deal with their poor driving, and you’re glad to be free of them when they take a turning soon after.
Our society judges gender very quickly based on when we firstlook at someone, and so when we can’t see the person in the car, we automatically use they/them pronouns. Some people might just prefer for you to continue using they/them pronouns for them, regardless of whether you can see them or not.
We can’t always tell someone’s gender just by looking at them, and we know there are more genders than just “man” and “woman”. Using they/them pronouns for people as standard before you know their gender or pronouns can be a useful way to avoid using the wrong pronouns by mistake. It’s hard to undo years of your brain gendering people quickly, but it gets much easier to avoid doing it with practice!
How do I know someone's pronouns and gender?
If you’re not sure of a person’s gender, often you don’t really need to know. If you are having a conversation with or about a person, it’s considered more polite to ask for a person’s pronouns. You can ask the person privately “how would you like me to refer to you?” or “can I just check, what pronouns do you use?” It is then up to them whether they give you just their pronouns, or tell you more about their gender, but at least you have given them that decision.
If you do need to know their gender, for example if they are a service user at your workplace and you need to complete a demographic form for them, then do so as you would any other sensitive piece of information about a person. It is best to ask privately, and perhaps alongside other information you need to collect, in order not to single that aspect of them out as “unusual”.
But what if I make a mistake?
Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, it’s just important that you acknowledge them and learn from them, as long as you don’t dwell on them. It may feel terrible to accidentally use the wrong name or pronouns for someone, but continuing to linger on it or bring it up will only draw attention to it and drag out the discomfort for the person. Your best option is to acknowledge it, often privately to yourself, apologise quickly, correct yourself, and move on with the conversation. You will do better next time if you acknowledge it as something you can improve on.
The person may seem annoyed that you made a mistake in the moment, and you might feel that you need to assure them that you are trying. Likely the person knows that you are, but it might help to think of it in context for that person. Being called the wrong gender once by you could be easy to pass off, but being consistently called the wrong gender over a long period of time, multiple times a day, can become very draining for the person.
Annoyance you might perceive from the person is often not directed at you personally, but the general experience of being misgendered repeatedly. In the moment you may feel hurt, but you will get better at calling them the correct gender, and using the right name and pronouns. Getting used to it can be uncomfortable, but it’s worth it for both of you when it becomes second nature to you!