Want to know how to ask people about their pronouns? Here’s why you already do.
How did you feel when you first encountered the suggestion that you should ask people about their pronouns rather than assuming based on how they look? (Even if that moment was just now). Uncertainty, anxiety, and skepticism are pretty common responses.
But is the practice of exchanging pronouns really that unfamiliar, burdensome, or unrealistic? Nope, and I’ll tell you why.
Because you already know how to ask people how you should refer to them.
It’s something we do on a daily basis when we ask people about their names. We have mostly unspoken, but widely-accepted, norms to help us along. For example, if someone tells you their name, you probably know you’re expected to offer your own name in return. If you just met someone and want to know their name, you can probably think of a few polite ways to ask. Names and pronouns aren’t exactly the same on a structural linguistic level, but there’s no reason we can’t use our approach to names to facilitate the exchange of pronouns.
Note: Not everyone follows the norms I’m about to describe, especially when it comes to names that are identifiably of color, non-”American”, non-Judeo-Christian, and/or not reflective of middle-to-upper class-ness. Of course, trans people’s names are often delegitimized, too. But I’m going to focus on what happens when people do treat one another’s names with respect, making this list function as a set of standards for how all names should be treated.
Things we know about names:
- You can’t tell what a person’s name is just from looking at them. People might occasionally make a guess, but no one expects them to get it right — if they did, you might conclude that someone tipped them off or that they’ve been internet-stalking you. Or you might just be weirded out.
- If you want to know someone’s name, you have to ask. It’s a totally normal question; actually, you’re more likely to be considered rude if you don’t ask for someone’s name upon meeting. If you were to sneak around looking for clues for a name instead of asking (see any of their mail lying around? can you think of an excuse to ask for ID?), that would be… creepy, to say the least.
- Only an asshole argues with someone about their name. (“Kate? Really? I don’t know, you look more like a Jennifer to me, so you can’t really expect me to call you Kate… I’ll call you Jennifer.”)
- Names are treated as facts. In everyday conversations, people tend to ask, “What’s your name?” rather than, say, “What is your preferred name?” When “preferred name” is used, it’s in usually in specific contexts like doctors offices, schools, and other places where someone might have to provide an “official name” that they don’t really use.
- Each individual is the expert on their own name. We know that some names have different spellings: Rebecca or Rebekah, Jeffrey or Geoffrey, Ashley or Ashleigh. Others have different pronunciations: Hannah can rhyme with banana or fauna, Stephan can have emphasis on the first or second syllable. Though people sometimes make mistakes in executing the correct pronunciation or spelling of a name, we know that the person in question is the ultimate authority on these details.
- People don’t insist that there are only two (or two hundred, or even two thousand) names, and we all know that there are many names in the world that we’ve never even heard of. You’ve managed to memorize hundreds upon hundreds of names in your life, so there’s no reason you can’t memorize people’s pronouns as well – at least with some practice.
- It’s important to remember someone’s name, even if it’s unusual, even if you don’t like it, and even if you don’t like them.
- Even if someone’s name is unfamiliar or hard to pronounce, spell, or remember, it would be a slap in the face to decide on your own that you’ll just ignore their name and call them something you find easier instead.
- People sometimes change their names, occasionally more than once. Some forms of name change are considered more legitimate than others (just compare women who change their name upon marriage versus those motivated by individual expression), but it’s clearly more polite to use the person’s new(est) name.
- Even if we associate certain names with certain kinds of people, knowing someone name doesn’t necessarily tell you how they identify and knowing how someone identifies doesn’t tell you their name.
- Messing up occasionally isn’t the worst thing in the world, as long as it’s handled well. When we get someone’s name wrong, we usually apologize and move on without too much trouble. Then we work to avoid that mistake in the future. If we mess up constantly, it is an embarrassment to us rather than the fault of the person whose name we got wrong.
These are exactly the principles driving the idea that we should ask one other about which pronouns to use instead of assigning one based on a person’s appearance.
There is no practical reason we can’t treat pronouns like names.
What I want to emphasize is that we are good at learning and using individualized names because we have learned that it is important to do so. Social norms about how to use language don’t change over night, but we can facilitate the process. One way we can normalize pronoun exchange is to start thinking and talking about pronouns as semi-unique identifiers rather than a rigid, sex-based binary. Everyone has a name and a pronoun — go ahead and ask for both.