implicit misgendering

What’s the linguistics behind this, Kirby?

Paul Grice, or “Squidward Grice” as I called him in fully three drafts of my dissertation (because I kept forgetting to look up his first name) was a linguist who wrote a very handy book that’s weirdly difficult to get ahold of. Here is a scanned PDF with zero OCR, hat tip to whoever at MIT just left that lying around. The wiki article on this is already rather good, so if you want to skim that you can go ahead. I’ll sum up with examples using third person (gendered) pronouns in English, because that’s, like, what we’re talking about.

General premise:

The basic premise of Grice’s work is that language-users are trying to have productive conversations and tend to want to follow certain norms. Basically, if everyone is being a cooperative participant in the activity of “doing language together,” there are four main principles that people tend to follow. These aren’t inviolable, and in fact some of the principles are a matter of balancing opposing aims. Furthermore, if people are generally assuming that their conversation partner is at least trying to be cooperative, sometimes an apparent ‘violation’ of one of these principles can be taken as adding implied meaning to the conversation. This is where we’ll be talking about implicit misgendering — it arises when the misgendering comes from the implied meaning of balancing these principles relative to the other principles.

Strategy 1 for being cooperative: don’t say false stuff

This can be summed up pretty easily. If you’re trying to be a good sport in a conversation, try these quick tricks:

  • don’t just blatantly lie
  • don’t just randomly guess when you have no idea what you’re talking about.
  • don’t say a pronoun you believe doesn’t apply here
  • don’t guess a pronoun if you aren’t sure

Strategy 2 for being cooperative: give an appropriate amount of info

If you are, again, being a cooperative participant, you should probably try to give the right amount of information.

  • don’t give too little information — don’t be weirdly vague and mysterious? Don’t leave out information that would be useful for the conversation? That’s weird, don’t do that.
  • don’t give too much information — don’t go into extreme unnecessary detail about every damn thing!
  • don’t use a gender-neutral pronoun when a more specific one applies. Gender-neutral pronouns give us zero information about someone
  • don’t use a gendered pronoun when it’s not necessary or relevant. Gendered pronouns give us more information than we might necessarily want

Avery* told me ____ might not take that job offer from gougle** because of the twidder** drama.”

*hypothetical person, not a real Avery, this is a fictional example, please do not get distracted below by trying to figure out who I’m talking about
**not a real company, as you and I both know (:

Strategy 3 for being cooperative: try to say relevant stuff

If you are being cooperative, you’ll also try to have some kind of connection between topics of conversation. We have strategies for changing the topic, of course, but it’s something you kind of need to give me a heads-up for! If you introduce something that seems totally unrelated to me, I’m going to try and think of possible connections about why you’re bringing that up. This principle is just “try to say stuff that’s relevant.” It’s called the Maxim of Relevance. Nice, easy to remember, love that for us.

Strategy 4 for being cooperative: don’t be an asshole

Grice called this one the Maxim of Manner. It is generally just the assumption that we’re not going to, like, call each other slurs or scream at each other. It’s also about trying not to be really opaque — like, I should not use an inside joke with you if you haven’t heard of the joke. I also should probably not curse as much when I’m talking to my fancy emeritus colleagues as when I’m talking to, like, my bros. Grice says to “be perspicacious” in this one.

Okay, so what pronouns SHOULD I use for strangers, then?

Circular sign on a cafe door, around the edges are rainbow colors and the text “Until they say, use them or they”
A cafe sign telling us about the they/them default — it’s just like this in Seattle
  • Am I using the same strategy for every stranger I meet, or am I using one strategy (she/he) for people with some gender presentations, and another strategy (they) for others?
  • Am I casually using they for some people and not others?
  • Would the Virginia House Republicans be okay with how I’m using this pronoun? (Here’s a hint: if they might approve, you’re doing it wrong!)
  • Would I do this in front of the person I’m talking about? Do I only do it when they’re not around?
  • Am I getting weirdly angry or defensive when someone asks me NOT to use they for them?
  • Would I be okay if someone used they about me in this context? Would I be okay if someone used they about my mother in this context?



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Kirby Conrod

Kirby Conrod

Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.