When (& How) to Ask About Pronouns:
When should you ask a new person what their pronouns are? Should a group start with a “pronoun circle”, in which every person is expected to offer their pronouns up? Should you only ask people who look trans (whatever that means), or should you ask all people? Should you just call everybody “they” all the time unless told otherwise? Should you ask for pronouns directly, or just state what your pronouns are and give the other person the opportunity to do the same?
In a variety of settings, I’ve encountered versions these questions. They come up in activist spaces, university settings, play rehearsals, and even private gatherings. And it’s no wonder. Navigating this stuff is complicated. And if someone is, at their core, accepting of trans people, they usually want to get the pronoun thing right.
But no strategy for getting it right is always going to work. Every conversation about pronouns is happening in its own unique context, with parties who have their own unique relationships to gender and gendered language. And sometimes, the specifics of the context or the person being spoken to are such that pronouns should not be discussed at all. Put another way, a conversation about pronouns is only appropriate if a few preconditions have already been met. Here’s what a few of them are:
Before You Ask for Pronouns, Consider:
Are you in a space that is safe for trans people? This may seem like a really basic consideration, but a lot of well-meaning people don’t consider it before popping the pronoun question. If you’re in a public space that is mostly filled with cisgender people, you can’t always be guaranteed that honesty about gender identity and pronouns will be rewarded with acceptance. Asking someone their pronouns while they are at work or school can be especially risky — and even when it’s not risky, it can be terrifying. Unless you know that the context has policies in place to protect trans people, don’t even think about asking.
Are you in a space that is warm and respectful to trans people? There are many kinds of safety. The first kind is very basic, “negative liberty” style safety — freedom from being attacked or directly harassed. Some public spaces are safe to trans people in this way. Especially in liberal cities and queer circles. However, spaces that are truly safe in a positive, warm, respectful way are far rarer. Trans people need more than just freedom from attack. They need freedom to dress as they want, use the bathrooms that feel right, speak in whatever register feels right to them, and to occupy space however they like without fear of harassment.
Often, trans people are expected to out themselves for the benefit of people who won’t actually use the right words for them or treat them in respectful ways. This happens in mainstream queer spaces all the time — cis LGBQ people will ask for pronouns, knowing that’s the “right” thing to do, but will be utterly ill equipped to deal with any answers other than an expected “he” or “she”. Or they’ll follow up with blithe statements or ill-advised questions that indicate they don’t know much about trans people and their experiences.
Are people in this space well educated on trans issues? If you’re in a queer activist space or a women’s studies department at a university, the odds are good that everyone has an idea of what “nonbinary” means and how to use they/them pronouns. But in most areas of life, baseline knowledge of trans issues is not assured. I’m a social psychologist, and I have had many professional colleagues who don’t even know what “transgender” means. I certainly have encountered ignorance about trans issues in my family, in most workplaces, and in all social settings that aren’t hyper-progressive.
In settings where awareness of trans topics is not common, I might still want to be out, but I might not have the energy to explain myself or educate people. Sharing my pronouns in these contexts might force me to explain what the singular “they” is, and how it’s possible for a person to be neither female nor male. And I’ll have to worry about being met with confusion, or outright hostility & outrage. I don’t have the energy to navigate that shit all the time. Most trans people don’t. So if you’re at a random Midwestern brewpub or a Cub’s game, don’t ask the stranger next to you for their pronouns.
Will you actually use the person’s pronouns? If you don’t know how to watch your language and correct yourself for using the wrong pronouns, you probably shouldn’t be asking what the right ones are. No one is perfect, of course, but if you’re going to try to seem accepting by asking for pronouns, you better actually be accepting enough to use them. Are you comfortable using singular they pronouns? What about neopronouns like xie/xim or zie/hir? Have you ever used those in conversation before? Will you still respect a person no matter what their pronouns are? If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, don’t ask the question. If you’re reasonably comfortable using these pronouns, or working on learning, you’re well on your way.
Will you correct misgendering? You should not ask for a person’s pronouns if you’re not willing to go to the bat for them when they are misgendered. Will you intervene if you hear another person using the wrong pronouns for them? Will you watch out for other gendered language — calling a trans woman “dude” or calling a mix-gender group “guys” for example? Are you comfortable using language like “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”? If you haven’t worked to remove gendered assumptions from your language, you may not be ready to ask (and know) what a trans person’s pronouns are. Again, you don’t have to be perfect. I’m not! I still say “guys” all the time on accident! But you do need to care.
Are there other trans people around? Even if you’re a great ally and do everything right, a trans person may not feel comfortable sharing their pronouns with you. We’ve been burned before. A lot of people are disrespectful or invasive towards us, and it’s hard to predict how shitty a new acquaintance is going to be. And if we’re the only trans person in the room, the tension is much higher. If you don’t have any other trans friends, or if there aren’t any trans people within your organization or social group, you are probably not ready to ask someone their pronouns. Wait until you have learned and experienced a bit more. Work to make your social groups more trans-affirming; asking pronouns comes after that.
Is the person comfortable discussing their pronouns? This one is hard to intuit. Sometimes, trans people who are exploring their identities simply do not want to talk about it. Some people don’t know what the right answer for them is. Some people are truly indifferent. And we can all be a little bit too ravenous in our demand for information — trans folks included. I’m reminded of Chris Fleming’s recent Reddit AMA, in which the comedian received tons of questions asking what pronouns he uses. Chris never answered a single version of the question, and was clearly avoiding the question deliberately, yet Redditors kept asking.
I’m also reminded of the transition of Daniel Mallory Ortberg. Before sharing his new name and pronouns, he mentioned his transition on social media in oblique ways. During this time, his friends referred to him only by a shortened version of his old name. This, to me, sent a pretty clear signal that for the time being, pronouns were to be avoided. Despite this, Daniel received multiple questions on Twitter about what his new name and pronouns were gonna be. Many of the questions came from trans people who couldn’t take the hint that he wasn’t ready to discuss it. People aren’t always ready to answer. Sometimes the question is inappropriate to ask, no matter who asks it.
How to Ask
Let’s assume that all the preconditions described above have been met. You’re an ally to trans people (or you’re trans yourself), you’re in a space that is safe and accepting of trans people, and you know how to treat trans people respectfully. You know how to use they/them pronouns, you have genuine trans friends, and you are committed to correcting misgendering. In theory, you are prepared to ask a person their pronouns.
But how do you ask?
There are a lot of routes you could take. You could just blurt out “what are your pronouns” as soon as you see a person with an asymmetrical haircut (if this happened to me, I wouldn’t mind. But other people might). You could make sure the meeting/class begins with everyone going around in a circle, sharing their pronouns one-by-one. Or you could adopt a more opt-in approach, sharing your own pronouns but not demanding anyone else’s.
All these approaches are common, and all of them have limitations. Here are my thoughts.
Asking all people their pronouns. This method is time-consuming, inelegant, and can put people on edge. It forces trans people to either out themselves (often before they know anything about the person they’re speaking to), or lie. The question is also hard to navigate if a person is questioning their identity or pronouns.
Having everyone share their pronouns as part of a “pronoun circle”. This approach is okay, even good — as long as you’re in a really safe, affirming space. I like this approach in some contexts! But, it is time consuming and inelegant, and, when you’re the only trans person in the room, it really draws a lot of attention to you.
It also dumps a ton of information on every person in the group all at once. I’ve never been able to memorize a ton of names after having them all thrown at me in sequence — there’s no reason to expect most people could memorize that many pronouns quickly either.
Assuming a person’s pronouns unless they look trans. This is the worst option, and unfortunately a common one. You can’t eyeball whether a person is trans. A lot of trans people look like cis people, either of the gender they identify with, or the gender they were assigned at birth. For nonbinary people like me, it is especially hard to “look” like my gender. So this approach leads to a lot of trans people being mis-identified or missed.
This method also, ironically, shines a bright beacon of judgment on people who do “appear” trans. If you only ever pop the question — “what are your pronouns?” — when a person looks androgynous to you, you’re going to leave visibly trans people feeling singled out. You’re also gonna offend cisgender people who happen to seem androgynous to you.
Calling everyone “they” unless told otherwise. This approach seems, on its face, to be unassuming and progressive. It doesn’t require that you single out people who “look” trans, it normalizes the use of the singular “they”, and its base assumption is neutrality. The problem is, the majority of people (including trans people!) do not use “they” pronouns.
And while incorrectly calling someone “they” might seem less offensive than incorrectly calling them “she” or “he”, that is not always the case. One way that people consistently devalue trans women is by refusing to call them “she”; gender neutral language is often specifically dispatched as a way of avoiding referring to trans women as women.
It can also be hurtful to refer to a cis woman as a “they” if that woman has constantly had her womanhood erased due to racism or ableism. Black women and disabled women are often stereotyped as unfeminine, or as not being fully formed sexual beings — and for some of them, being referred to as a neutral “they” can be reminiscent of that ongoing negative experience. I’m white, not physically disabled, and not a woman, so I’m by no means an authority on this — but I have been told this by black and disabled women multiple times.
Stating your pronouns and giving the other person to opportunity to do the same. This option is definitely is my favorite of the ones listed. Stating one’s pronouns is a great way for cis people to signal that they are accepting of trans people, and a gentle reminder to all who witness them that you shouldn’t assume a person’s identity by looking at them.
This option does still put some pressure on the other party to share their pronouns, but the pressure is comparatively gentle. It makes pronoun sharing optional and conversational, and it’s more discrete than a pronoun circle. A lot of people perform the digital equivalent of this practice by listing pronouns in their twitter bios and email signatures — and the normalization of that makes my life, as a trans person, much easier.
After You’ve Asked
Let’s assume, again, that you’ve done everything right. You waited for the right moment, you made the other person comfortable, and then you said “Hi, my name is ____, I use _____ pronouns.” Let’s say the person was receptive, and told you what their pronouns are. Congratulations! You and your new friend are beautiful. But the work is not done! Here are some steps you can take next:
Use their pronouns! Find an excuse to correctly gender the person. Almost every trans person loves and cherishes being referred to correctly. It gives many of us gender euphoria: a strong feeling of “rightness”, comfort, and ease. Talk about the person (respectfully) when they are in the room. Tell a funny story about something they did in the past, and use their pronouns throughout. As long as you aren’t talking shit about us, we’ll probably love it.
Introduce the person using their pronouns. A great way to save a trans person some hassle is by introducing them to new people using their pronouns. Make this elegant. You can say, “Hi, this is my friend Michael, he’s a woodworker!” or, “This is Lenore, they just moved here from Utah!” This spares everyone the whole pronoun conversation, and validates that a person’s pronouns are correct and valid.
Correct people who get it wrong. Misgendering happens. Nobody’s perfect. But as soon as you know a trans person’s correct pronouns, you can help them out by correcting slip-ups in a casual, lighthearted way. I’ll take an example that happened to me this week:
S: Where are we going for food?
Me: We decided on IHOP.
D: Hey what’s up, where are we going?
S: She said we’re going to IHOP.
D: Uh, they.
S: Huh? Oh, they said we’re going to IHOP. Sorry.
In this situation, I felt uncomfortable correcting the person who called me “she”. I’m kind of shy about correcting people in real life. I hesitate and then the moment is gone. It was much easier for my friend, D, to jump in and gently correct S. D is also genuinely really good at such things. If you happen to be confident or socially skilled, put those superpowers to use, and back up people’s pronouns for them.
This piece reflects my opinion on the topic, though my views are informed by conversations with a lot of trans people of varying experiences. Every trans person has their own feelings on this matter, and their own boundaries; it’s always better to feel out an individual person’s comfort level than it is to stick to a rigid set of external rules. Furthermore, social norms are constantly in flux. In a few years, or decades, asking pronouns may be as comfortable as exchanging names. I’m betting that for the foreseeable future it will remain complicated — so definitely look to the specifics of the situation, setting, and person when making your decision about whether to ask, and how to ask.
If this piece feels a bit overwhelming, just remember the following:
· People aren’t always comfortable being asked what their gender is or what their pronouns are.
· Sharing your pronouns is a great, inobtrusive way to make acceptance of trans people the norm.
· Using the right pronouns and gendered language is important to cis and trans people alike.
· Sometimes, though, you won’t get to know what the “right” language is.
· When you’re in a conversation with someone, don’t be pushy or demanding of information. Just like, as a general thing.