mid-15c., from pro- and noun; modeled on Middle French pronom, from Latin pronomen, from pro “in place of” + nomen “name, noun”
A rose by any other name may smell just as sweet, but if we could ask the rose, it may well not appreciate being called a tulip. I know I don’t appreciate it when folks mess up my name. While I am technically named Katherine, I’ve gone by Kate since I was about 6 years old, and that is how I introduce myself to others. However, I often have people I’ve introduced myself to call me Katie instead. Which drives me bonkers. I am not Katie, I didn’t introduce myself as Katie, why are you changing my name without my permission?
My mom has a name that is pronounced very differently from how it is spelled, and so almost no one says it right the first time, and often not the second or third time either. And, when she corrects them, many people put on a mocking, snobby tone to repeat her name, as though wanting her name to be pronounced correctly is somehow a stuck up thing for her to want. This drives her pretty bonkers too.
And I’m sure many of you reading this have had similar experiences with people messing up your name, one way or another. Shortening or lengthening it without permission, pronouncing it or misspelling it, etc. And my guess from interacting with folks is that this bothers most people, and probably bothers someone more the more often it happens. Being bothered by someone messing up your name makes sense, and is a relatable thing to most people.
More Than What You Learned in English Class
But many are confused about those who are upset about having the wrong pronouns applied to them. If you are one of those confused, I will invite you to read the above definition.
Pronouns stand in for names in conversation. And, rather like our names, our pronouns are tied closely to our sense of identity. Pronouns, like names, connect closely to our sense of who we are. However, unlike names, our pronouns also describe a piece of what we are. If you can understand why it might bother someone to have their name delivered incorrectly, you can understand why pronouns are important.
Similarly, if you can imagine yourself being upset if someone referred to you as an “it” (another pronoun, but one usually reserved for objects, not people), you can understand why pronouns are important. We all want to be seen and interacted with for both who, and what, we are.
So, what can we do?
Many of us, either in our jobs or in day to day life, consistently interact with a procession of strangers. And, for much of our history terms such as sir, ma’am, miss, ladies and gentlemen, and other gendered terms were considered the polite way to address those you don’t know.
Use An Alternative
If you are interacting with a group of people, you might say,” Good evening, folks!” or “How is everyone today?” For only one person, you could simply drop the pronoun all together “How is your day going?” or “Have a nice afternoon!”. If the situation is one where you and the person are introduced by name, then referring to someone by their name is a perfect stand-in for pronouns until you know what pronouns they use “Hey Kate, I hope you have a lovely day,” or “Did you see the dress Kate was wearing? I really liked it.”
Share Your Preferred Pronouns
If you feel comfortable doing so when you are introduced to people, say to a new group of coworkers, for example, you might include your pronouns in the introduction. “Hi, my name is Kate, and I use she/her pronouns.” Doing this invites those around you to tell you their pronouns, which can be a great way to help others feel safe and respected.
When in doubt and talking about another person as opposed to talking to them, it is always safe to use “they” as a gender-neutral option (one that Merriam Webster says has been in use since the 1300s, for those grammar sticklers out there). If you pay attention, you probably already use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun fairly often when you don’t know a person’s gender. For instance, if someone is driving recklessly, you might remark “Man, where did they learn how to drive?” and other instances such as this. Try to notice yourself doing this for the next week or two. You may be surprised how often you’re already doing it.
It’s Ok To Ask
But, what if the person is someone who you interact with somewhat regularly? Ask. Similarly to how we may feel when we need to ask the name of someone who recognizes us, but we don’t remember them, asking can feel embarrassing, vulnerable, and uncomfortable. But asking is the right way to go.
A simple “what pronouns do you use?” can go a long way towards building a positive relationship with someone about whom the world often makes the wrong assumption. And putting yourself out there, making a point of trying to use more gender-neutral language, and trying to make as many people as possible feel safe and welcome in your community is a great way to celebrate Pride month.
Check out this BBC article “Beyond ‘he’ and ‘she’: The rise of non-binary pronouns” to learn more about gender pronouns.