How to Keep and Make Friends and Respect People: A Plain English Guide to Pronouns

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Hi there! Normally I write about very personal topics to the transgender experience. I like to write about the things I do as a trans person, the things I feel, and why those are so important and sacred to me. If I can teach cisgender folks something while I do that, well, that’s awesome! 

And this is also about something very personal and sacred to trans people, but today this conversation centers around cisgender people. Why? Because today’s topic is about a precious gift and a responsibility that you have, as people, and it affects your trans friends, coworkers, family, and the people you meet at your local bar. Today we’re gonna talk about pronouns, why they matter, and how to use the right ones even if you find that difficult. 

This isn’t gonna be a grammar lesson though. We won’t be diagramming sentences. This is an exploration and, I hope, a useful guide to you being better at using the right pronouns for other people in the right way. I wish I had some beautiful, flowery metaphors to make this more entertaining but truly this is us having a direct conversation about you, your priorities, and your decency and integrity as a person. I hope that matters enough to you to read on.

Pronouns, why are they so heckin’ important to us? 

So first let’s talk about why pronouns are SO important and why you, as a person, should endeavor to get mine right. It’s because you are a teacher. You are an educator and a coach. You are an example to others. You are a guide. You do not have power over me and my identity, but you have influence to provide others with information about me whether I’m in the room or if I’m not. And this is what pronouns do. 

When you speak about me in the third person (which is when you would use a pronoun, right?), you are giving others information about me. If you say she/her for me, you are telling people that I am most likely a woman or woman-aligned person of one sort or another. If you say he/him for me you are telling people that I am probably a man or man-aligned person of one kind or another. If you use they for me you are leaving that ambiguous, neutral, unknown, or signaling that I am non-binary. If you use a neo-pronoun for me you are signaling that I am most likely non-binary in one way or another.

Since I am a woman and I use explicitly she/her pronouns I will mostly use myself for examples throughout this post but I hope you can put in the extra effort to expand this to all pronouns. 

When someone uses the incorrect pronouns for me they are not simply committing a flub, they are teaching other people something about me that is incorrect. In short, they are telling a lie. If you don’t enjoy having other people mischaracterize and lie about you, I’m sure you’ll understand where I’m coming from when I say it’s very frustrating to me to hear that someone is talking about me as if my gender was somehow ambiguous, or as if I were a man playing at being a woman — even if it was by accident. Because now there are two sides to this. Now I’m frustrated with you for putting the burden on me of fixing this and also for not bothering to get it right in the first place.

And this matters. It doesn’t just matter to me as the trans person here. It also makes you look like a total heel when you use “he/him” for me and I get to the party with my shoulder length hair, makeup, pretty watercolor dress, and obvious feminine aura. You aren’t looking any better for that because if that group of people is trans friendly now you look like the kind of person that misgenders trans people.

But also if I get to that party and those people aren’t trans friendly, you potentially put me in a dangerous situation. For what? And that’s one part of this equation. I’m a trans person, I have learned how to be careful who I out myself to and to start sussing out who’s safe for me and who isn’t. That’s a skill you probably don’t have. When you speak to others about me, I am trusting you to represent me honestly as I would represent myself in that situation. When you don’t do that you can literally put me in danger.

Think about how you’ve felt in your history when someone has mischaracterized you or your intentions to other people. We’ve all had this experience, I think, that someone has said something about us to other people that we then we had to do the work to go fix that — and also to find out if the person saying those things really, genuinely, believed what they were saying. When you use the wrong pronouns for me, that’s the kind of thing I have to do. 

Now I have to question if you are seeing me properly. Now I have to question if you are deciding that you have authority over my gender. Now I have to question your place in my life. And it takes effort to figure out if you’re someone who’s maliciously misgendering me or if you’re someone who is making a habitual mistake. If you’re in that first group, this post is not for you. If you’re someone who’s making a habitual sort of mistake either by routine or habit, then I think we can have a talk here that might be helpful to you. 

SIDEBAR: Preferred Pronouns

Pronouns are not a preference. They are an instruction. When I tell you my pronouns that is not me debating you or offering an invitation for your input that is me giving you the thing you need to refer to me properly to others. This is a gift, and it is something I’m entrusting you with out of faith that you’re a decent human being. There is only one situation in which a person might have preferred pronouns and that is when you see someone who uses more than one set of pronouns. Online you might see this written like “she/they.” This means is that this person takes both sets of pronouns, and in that case the kind thing to do is ask if they prefer one of these over the other. If they do not, use them interchangeably. 

So why did you make that mistake in the first place? 

Let’s start with why. When we examine the causes of something we can find better ways to fix it. There are lots of reasons you might have, in a moment of absent minded speaking, used the wrong pronouns for me. 

If you’ve recently used the wrong pronouns for someone, take a moment to be introspective here. Ask yourself these questions.

Do I care enough to do better in the future? Is this person important enough to me that I would feel bad knowing that I said something that caused them harm, inconvenience, or that misrepresented them to others? If you didn’t say yes to this, I think you probably need to do some work on yourself and your motivations — the problem isn’t grammar or remembering, the problem is you. If you answered yes to this, move onto the next question. 

So what happened? Was that a slip of the tongue out of habit, are these pronouns new or foreign to me, or did I forget to switch to their pronouns? This distinction matters. The first two of these means you need to put in practice, the second means you need to see your friend in their correct gender. 

”Uhhhh, did she just say I need to practice?”

Yup. How do you think habits got to be habits? You practiced them, intentionally or otherwise, and in doing so you made these little rivers and channels in your mind that information flows through automatically. Usually you do this by accident, right? It just happens naturally. But if it matters to divert the stream elsewhere, because it’s putting people in danger or potentially causing harm, you can do that with effort. 

So if the problem here is that you have old habits you need to override, you will need to apply effort. That effort might make you feel self conscious, and that’s ok. Do it anyway. Why? Because the awkwardness you’re going to feel practicing talking about me properly absolutely pales in comparison to both the good things that come from you making the effort (strengthening our relationship, increasing my trust in you, and just looking like a good person) as well as the consequences of misgendering me (weakening or ending our relationship, making you seem untrustworthy, cruel, ignorant, or malicious). 

We might not say anything in the moment, but we see you when you’re getting this right and we can see you making the effort to fix those little habit streams in your mind. That tells me you value me, it tells me you see me — or you’re trying to. 

So how can you practice? Go and write down some statements about me that are true — and use my pronouns in those statements. Put them on index cards if you must. You will feel silly being deliberate about language this way, and you should do it anyway — you’re doing this for a reason, right? Make the sentences kind or funny, flattering and positive, or preferably all of that. “This is my friend Evey, she REALLY likes hot sauce.” “She has a spoilt husky named Misha.” “She really loves her some bold eyeshadow.” “She has curly hair.” “She overuses the snowflake emoji.” Then go to the mirror and literally say them aloud. Say them with a smile, imagine saying those things to someone you’re introducing me to. Then type them into your phone a few times in text messages to nobody or to someone who is helping you work on this. 

Do this for a few minutes a day for a week or two, do it so often that it’s boring. Do it so often that when you introduce me one of these sentences automatically comes out of your mouth. 

Why am I saying you should say things aloud?

Because when you’re saying something aloud you are actually practicing it in a variety of contexts all at the same time. Saying things aloud gets muscles and vocal habits involved, and you will need those so that in the future you can do the right thing without needing to think about that. 

If you do this full exercise you are practicing in multiple contexts: writing, speaking, thinking, seeing (if you practice in front of a mirror), hearing, and typing. If you do this by using example sentences you are rehearsing phrases that will start to come out of your mouth naturally and will help anchor those pronouns to other things about this person that you know to be true. It will become natural to say of your friend “This is my friend Evey, she’s really annoying/geeky, whatever.” Get vulgar with it, I don’t care. Write sentences you would actually use. “This is my friend Evey, she’s super fucking addicted to coffee,” is both true and a hilarious way to practice my pronouns. If you get to simultaneously acknowledge my gender correctly AND roast me, who’s the real winner here, huh? 

For a lot of people the problem with remembering pronouns is that they need to remember them. This should not be a thing you remember about me, it should be a thing you can’t forget. It should be as obvious to your mind as the color of the sky or the sound of rain. If when you speak about me you are finding yourself having to make extra effort with each pronoun to stop and remember, then you have not properly adopted my pronouns yet. Do this work and you will have adopted them in no time flat. 

And if the problem is you don’t see my gender or gender presentation properly? 

Again, this is a habit of a different sort. This habit is about you looking at me and seeing traits on me that make your brain land on “he/him” because you’ve been taught this automatic association so much that you’ve learned to consider them inseparable. They aren’t. Folks have been playing around with different pronouns forever, there’s nothing magical or true about them, you’ve just learned a different habit. 

In this case the thing that needs to happen is you need to remind yourself that the person you’re talking about is, in fact, their gender. I had a friend who was really struggling with my pronouns until he resolved entirely, “no, Evey is a woman.” Once he made that designation and truly solidified it in his mind, using my pronouns came naturally and easily to him. 

A lot of the time it’s difficult for folks to make this change because they’re still seeing what they used to see. I’m not going to judge you for that, there’s not really a benefit in doing that, you know?

You might find it helpful to sort of reprogram your associations with those memories. I was never a guy back then — you just didn’t know I was a woman. It wasn’t “back when she was he.” It was “back before we knew.” 

Most labels are stories we tell ourselves about the world and the things in it. They’re narratives. You as a human have the most incredible power to inject new narratives onto old memories. Hindsight is 20/20, right? Use that amazing power that humans have to do a good thing for yourself and others here. 

If you are willing to invest in a little bit of awkwardness, a little bit of effort, this will come naturally to you in the future without effort. So is it worth it to you? That’s up to you. If you apply that effort, others will see that. Others will see you as an example, and you can inspire them to apply that effort. The change can ripple out from you to several people, and from them to others. You can be the pebble that helps make your friend group, your workplace, your bar, your D&D table, etc., into a safe and friendly place for people of all kinds. 

But Singular They is WRONG

Well, you’re factually incorrect but I understand your point here is not that “they” is actually wrong, it’s that it feels wrong for you to use “they” as a pronoun this way. 

Again, this is a matter of effort and habit. You can choose to be the stalwart protector of grammar rules that don’t exist, sure. Or you can choose to not be the person that people only invite to things because they feel obligated to out of a sense of decency. 

One of my degrees is in English. I promise you there’s absolutely nothing to be gained from being correct about grammar (which, again, you aren’t here) and also looking like a jerk. If you refuse to use the singular they what you’re teaching people is mostly about you, not about our non-binary friends and folks who use they pronouns. And the thing you’re teaching people is that you treasure what you think over others’ dignity. When I hear someone saying something like that, my take away there is that they’re kind of a jerk and they’re rude and I should keep my relationship with them at arm’s length at the bare minimum. (Notice how I used they pronouns right now for a singular person and you didn’t care about that because it was grammatically accurate?)

Note from Evey: This is just a life lesson in general, there’s very little to be gained from being elitist to others about their grammar. The only time you should ever offer someone a correction on their language is if it is so woefully inaccurate that they are being misunderstood or their meaning is lost. And that’s just about being kind and helpful. 

But Neo-Pronouns are WEIRD!

Yeah? Half the words that come out of your mouth on a daily basis would have seemed VERY weird to me just 15-16 years ago. The language many of us use to communicate online and the memes and the jokes would have made no sense to me in 2005. If you had told my father in 1990 that the word “google” would be an important word in his life soon, he would have thought you were speaking a foreign language. 

And there are lots and lots of neo-pronouns. I get that. Nobody is expecting you to learn all of them. Learn the ones you need to know when you need to know them.

The thing that matters with this is that you’re learning the flexibility to learn new pronouns. Once you have the skill in your toolkit to pick up new pronouns you’re going to find it very easy to learn new ones. Practice will make perfect. Once you learn how to use Fae pronouns (one of the more common Neo-pronouns) that will benefit you every time you meet someone who uses those. 

I hope this helps. 

There’s a lot of really, really hostile conversation about pronouns out there right now. The conversation about these things doesn’t have to be this way. I know that you, cisgender folks, are being asked to pick up skills you never really needed to consider before. I know that this will take you time and effort. 

What I’m saying to you here is that this effort is important. It should have been important fifty years ago. It should have been important one-hundred years ago. But it wasn’t. I think we can agree that there were lots of things that weren’t important back then that we’ve decided are important today and that should have been important. 

Please make an effort to extent this kindness to all people, not just people you believe are trans. Put your pronouns in your Facebook profile and your work signature even if they’re the ones people would assume for you. Talk to your places of employment about getting them put on name cards and other identification. Start adding them to forms for your customers. Put them on your business cards. 

Now go practice pronouns — and kindness.

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