In light of international pronouns day, it seemed only appropriate to address a growing expectation: asking one’s pronouns. Though it sounds rather comical to address something so easy for the LGBTQ community, it may not come as such to others.
The Chicago Tribune words it pretty well: “We need to change the narrative that asking for someone’s pronouns is awkward. Stating pronouns needs to become normalized. … Cisgender people in particular need to get used to using and owning their pronouns so queer people don’t have to feel pressure.”
Out of respect for everyone who may not have experience asking for pronouns, let’s dive into some feasible ways to ask someone about their pronouns without coming off like a complete asshole.
1. Introduce yourself first
If the person you’re looking to ask is a stranger, approach them kindly with an open perspective. Say something like, “Hi, it’s so nice to meet you. I’m [name] and I use [pronouns].” The person will likely respond with theirs, but if they don’t, don’t hesitate to have them clarify.
MyPronouns.org suggests telling yours first before asking someone else’s pronouns.
In a group setting, one could open a meeting or gathering with something like, “Before we get started, let’s go around and state our names and pronouns.”
2. Just ask them
If it’s someone you’ve known for a while but would like to get clarification, take to what the Tribune said before. It doesn’t need to be awkward. If you stumble and accidentally use the wrong pronouns in reference to this person, briefly apologize and move on. They probably don’t want to make a slip-up a big deal. However, if your mistakes persist, they may let you know again that you’re referring to them incorrectly.
2.5. Ask them privately
Sometimes, folks aren’t comfortable openly sharing their pronouns with even a small group. Approaching them one-on-one to clarify with them can instill some trust in them knowing they have someone who respects their identity. Conversely, if they ask to keep their pronouns between you and them, I would recommend referring to them with their name as much as possible to remain neutral.
3. If you don’t know, default to “they”
As per a hot take of mine, it’s becoming more accepted to refer to a stranger with they/them pronouns until you find out what they prefer. However, if using they/them doesn’t come naturally, substituting a set of pronouns can be swapped for the person’s name until you learn what the person prefers. However, some folks do only use their name as their pronouns, and that should be respected as well.
In a workplace setting, consider referring to this person as a coworker, colleague, teammate, etc., rather than salesman or chairwoman, for example.
Rachel Levin in this article, on the other hand, discusses that perhaps asking one’s pronouns may not be such a good idea:
Every situation is different. The associate professor of biology and neuroscience and dean of women at Pomona College (Claremont, Calif.) countered these experiences by contacting her students prior to the beginning of the year with the class’s required texts and to be sure she knows their correct name and/or pronouns by the time the first class rolls around.
“Those incidents taught me that questions about pronoun use can be painful to the very people to whom we are trying to signal support,” Levin wrote in her article. “So why do many institutions and their faculty members persist in the wholesale practice of requesting pronouns on the first day of class, especially with young adults who are in the process of figuring out who they are?
“… For those who have jumped onboard the state-your-pronouns bandwagon, I would ask that you ask yourself for whom you are doing this. Is this the best way to support your students? Is it the best way to signal your allyship and desire to create a safe classroom?”
Learning someone’s pronouns and applying them to your day-to-day life is a difficult transition. But for the safety and well-being of your friends, family, colleagues and everyone in between, it is the right thing to do. Accepting and using someone’s pronouns as they’d like you to is a big deal to them and can do a great deal of damage if you willingly go out of your way to use the wrong set.
Do one thing today: Ask just one person their pronouns and reflect on how it felt to you. Was it awkward or did it go smoothly? If it didn’t go as well, how can you make it a better experience for both parties next time? If it went well, do it again with someone else.