Q: How do you actually go about asking people for their pronouns (while minimizing the chances someone might take offense)?
The best time to ask someone about their pronouns is during an introduction, since names and pronouns can be exchanged as a unit (watch Trans Talk for an upcoming post on this subject). But don’t worry if you missed the opportunity to ask when you first met someone — it’s never too late!
A question like, “What pronouns do you use?” or “What are your pronouns?” generally works well. Depending on the person you’re talking to, though, this question may be confusing. In those cases, it can be useful to be a bit more explicit and package in a brief explanation, e.g. “What pronouns should I use when I’m talking about you? [perhaps provide examples if helpful]. I like to make sure I ask people rather than just assuming based on how they look.”
Another way to ask for pronouns, which acknowledges that some people use different pronouns in different contexts, is “How would you like to be referred to today/in this context?”
A final strategy, which may be the most effective way to normalize pronoun exchange, make it clear what you’re asking, and avoid the potential for insult is to offer your own pronouns when you introduce yourself. This often inspires people to give you their own pronouns without you having to ask at all. If it doesn’t have that effect, you can follow it up with, “What about you?”
As I explain in Part 3, it’s best to avoid words like “prefer,” because they suggest that pronouns are just a preference rather than a real need. So “What pronouns do you use?” or “What are your pronouns?” may be more respectful than “What pronouns do you prefer?”
Q: What do I do if I make a mistake and use the wrong pronoun (or name)?
You should follow basically the same procedure you would follow if you accidentally referred to a cis person with the wrong pronoun (or name). Apologize for your mistake, move on, and make sure you do better next time. Particularly in a public context, don’t perform an elaborate apology and talk about how bad you feel about it — that just calls more attention to your gaffe and creates pressure for the person you misgendered to reassure or comfort you. A good apology could go something like this: “Devin was telling me that he — sorry, they — will visit you tomorrow.” If you’ve made repeated mistakes and want the person you misgendered to know you noticed this and are working on it, you can mention it later in private. Of course, there are limits to how many times you can make a mistake before you’ll lose the benefit of the doubt, so make sure you take steps to improve your pronoun accuracy.
Q: How can I improve my pronoun accuracy?
If you’re having trouble increasing your flexibility with pronouns, there are a few steps you can take. First, try using the Minus18 Pronouns-app (actually a website that functions well on mobile phones) or Practice with Pronouns. You can choose the particular pronoun(s) you want to master and these sites will help you develop a sense of grammatical intuition for when to use which pronouns.
It’s also important to practice out loud, so try telling stories about someone who uses gender-neutral pronoun to someone who will pay attention to your pronoun usage and correct you if you get them wrong (choose someone who won’t be triggered by hearing you misgender the person if you do make a mistake). Or go people-watching with a friend and make up little stories about the folks you’re looking at using gender-neutral pronouns.
Q: What if someone gives me more than one pronoun (e.g. “I use they/them/theirs or he/him/his”) or asks for a different pronoun at a different time?
Open communication is always helpful. You might ask follow up questions like, “Would you like me to use one particular set of pronouns today/in this context/right now?” or “Are there guidelines I should follow when choosing between your pronouns?”
Among those who have multiple pronoun preferences, there are a few potential scenarios, though you won’t know which apply unless you’re told:
- Some people use different pronouns in different contexts. For example, someone may want to be referred to as “she” in most contexts, but not in front of her boss or family members.
- If you’ve asked people for their pronouns at different times and gotten different answers, keep in mind that people’s pronouns can change more than once. The answer you get to a question about pronouns on any particular day isn’t set in stone, so it’s important to be flexible.
- Some people genuinely don’t care about which pronoun you use and leave it up to each individual to choose for themselves. This situation provides an excellent opportunity to challenge yourself by choosing a pronoun other than the ones you’d used based on first impression.
- Some people who use gender-neutral pronouns will mention a second set of gendered pronouns (e.g. “I use they/them/theirs or she/her/hers”) where the second set is designed to be a plan B for those who aren’t willing or able to use the gender-neutral option.
- Some people who generally use binary pronouns but who are also comfortable being referred to with gender-inclusive they will signal this by including both pronouns, e.g. “I use he/him/his or they/them/their.”
- When people aren’t sure which pronoun they want, they may want to hear how different pronouns sound as a way to figure out
- And surely other situations I’m not thinking of.
As these examples suggest, people may put their primary pronouns first, but this is not always the case. Nothing is a substitute for asking the person for their input. If there’s no way you can ask clarifying questions, you may just want to use the first set of pronouns given.
Q: What should I do if I hear someone else misgender a trans person (whose pronouns I know)? Should I correct them?
A: This is a question to ask the trans person in question. Some people would love to have your help making corrections of this sort — sometimes people even take the corrections more seriously when they come from a cis person. But you also don’t want to out someone, so it can be useful to ask people when you get their pronouns, “What would you like me to do if I hear someone use the wrong pronoun?” This is especially appropriate for people who use pronouns other than she or he and anyone else who might be especially vulnerable to being misgendered (e.g. people who have just come out as trans). Keep in mind that many trans people have different levels of outness in different parts of their lives, so be especially careful if you might be crossing those boundaries (e.g. as a teacher writing an letter of recommendation to an employer, as a friend visiting someone at work, as a doctor speaking to family members, etc.).
If you find yourself in this situation and have to make a choice before you can ask the trans person what they want, be careful and use contextual cues. Did the trans person tell you their pronoun in private or public? Was it in a context similar to the one you’re currently in? Have you heard others that know the trans person well using a pronoun in the context you’re currently in? Was the person who used the wrong pronoun someone who might have power over the trans person, like family members, bosses, or teachers? For instance, if a student introduces themself with they/them/theirs pronouns to the whole class on the first day of school, it is relatively low risk to correct a classmate who uses the wrong pronoun. If you’re having a meeting with that student’s parents, on the other hand, the risk is far higher.
Q: Is it appropriative for me, as a cis person, to advertise my pronouns?
A: No! Cis people sharing their pronouns is a crucial part of making pronoun exchange a normal part of any interaction. Put them on name tags, in your email signatures, in your social media profiles, on your business cards, or anywhere else you can think of.
Q: I’ve noticed that trans people don’t always ask me/one another/everyone for their pronouns.
This is true, but that’s no reason to avoid the practice. It can be more difficult for trans people to start the pronoun dialogue for a variety of reasons: fear of not being supported or being met with verbal or physical violence, the risk of being outed that comes with calling attention to one’s gender, and of course the same social anxieties that make it hard for anyone to ask about someone’s pronouns. This situation is an opportunity for cis allies to do some of the extra work involved in making language more trans-inclusive.