The Problem With Pronoun Practices

I’m at a conference about nonbinary pronouns right now! Or, I was when I started writing this post — but several times at this conference, people have raised the question of how to ask people to share their pronouns without pressuring people to out themselves.

Or, the actual issue: how to ask (CIS) people to share pronouns without pressuring (TRANS) people to out themselves. This is an issue of safety — in general, if a trans person doesn’t feel safe in coming out as trans, there’s a reason, and you should never ever be pressuring people to come out when they feel resistant to that. Their instincts are consistently serving them well in surviving a transphobic environment, and asking them to ignore their instincts is not okay to do.

This comes up in school and work a lot. TAs at universities will ask students to go around the room on the first day of class and introduce themselves by name and pronoun. I also heard from someone who is attempting to institute a ‘pronouns in email signatures’ policy at their (fairly progressive, large) non-profit job. Here’s what I tell people about this — please share this around! It’s based mostly on my experiences in academia, but I hope that I’ve made it more generalizable to other domains.

(You can scroll to the very end for a TL;DR version of this!)

Step one: make space for pronoun sharing but don’t require it

When I am a TA or instructor, I do ask students to go around the room and introduce themselves on the first day. I usually ask them to share their name, some unexpected or funny (memorable) thing, and I say the words “if you’d like to share your pronouns you can.” I then don’t remind anyone or bug them about it.

The other thing I do during introduction day is my extremely fun and impressive party trick of Learning All Of Their Names On The First Day. I don’t personally think it’s impressive but I’ve had several classes applaud when I do it (WHY?) so I guess it is. I can talk about this fun party trick (and how you can learn it) elsewhere, but the role it serves is to demonstrate to students that I am committed to recognizing each individual in the room and internalizing the things they contribute. Fostering this kind of atmosphere is honestly way more important than making cis frat members remember to say “he/him” on the first day.

Step one point five: allow for a private place to share pronouns

The first day of school is stressful for everyone on campus, and plenty have felt uncomfortable sharing pronouns (or other personal information) on the first day simply because it’s the first day and we’re all very new to each other and feel weird. However, I want to make sure people get a chance to share pronouns later on in the game, after we’ve established trust and gotten to know one another — and I know when I’m in that situation, I’ve often felt like if I didn’t tell an instructor my pronouns on the very first day, then I’ve missed my opening and I have to just tolerate being misgendered for the rest of the quarter.

This sucks! Just my professional opinion. I try to remedy this in part by keeping and open and candid channel of communication with individual students and the class as a whole, but I also like to make a way of communicating stuff like this without having to do it in front of thirty strangers in a small windowless room. For me, this means using the course management software (we use Canvas at UW) to make a little “quiz” where students can optionally share with me name pronunciations (in IPA), their language background, pronouns, their goals for the quarter, etc.

This strategy of having a Not Public Speaking way of sharing pronouns can be replicated outside education by any other type of survey collection — Google Forms or SurveyMonkey would work fine for this — as long as you make it optional but advertise it well, and fold pronouns in with other salient information.

Step two: lead by example from a position of authority

The other thing I do on the first day of a new class is that I introduce myself by my pronouns, and I have a short paragraph on my standard syllabus explaining what they mean. This is that paragraph, under an “About Me” heading at the very end of the syllabus:

I do this because as the instructor I’m in a position of authority with respect to undergraduates and especially my students. I also include my pronouns in my email signature for the same reason. By modelling the behavior without pressuring people to follow suit, I can accomplish two things: first, I can give students a readily-accessible script for if they’re new to this type of etiquette (or new to the language!); and second, I can head off potential peer-to-peer bullying by visibly and publicly announcing that, you know, I’m trans and nonbinary and in this classroom we are all just going to be cool and normal about it (and if you don’t like it you can self-select out of the classroom).

Establishing an inclusive company culture needs to be the burden of authority figures in general, in part because the first person to share their pronouns is taking a social risk. At the times when I’ve been a student and I was the only one to state pronouns at the time of introduction, I was risking making myself visible and vulnerable to a potentially-hostile environment. As an instructor, I’m much more insulated from that risk, and I have more of a position to protect my students from it as well.

Step three: fold it into how you communicate other etiquette

I often encounter students who don’t know how to address graduate student instructors, or who don’t know how to ask how an academic professional would prefer to be addressed. Graduate students are in a weird position where we don’t have a title yet, so “Dr” or “Professor” are incorrect, but students often default to those titles because they just feel ‘college-y’. I’m someone who prefers to use first names and no titles, and by explicitly communicating my expectations about this, I’m trying to save my students from an extra source of confusion.

I have another part in that “About Me” section of my syllabus where I specify how I like to be addressed, and this is something that can save people a lot of anxiety:

By including this part along with my little pronouns blurb, what I’m doing is incorporating pronouns into a general communication of my social expectations and how I would like my students to interact with me.

I’m a big fan of sharing pronouns for exactly the same reason as I like to tell my students how to address me in email: I think it’s unfair to expect strangers to psychically just know this stuff, but I want them to be able to show that form of politeness to me anyways. I want to establish norms where expectations are explicit and also where pronouns are respected as part of basic politeness.

TL;DR

  1. Make pronoun sharing an option, but don’t force anyone to do it
  2. Give people more than one chance to share pronouns, and ideally set up a channel that won’t make people feel anxious
  3. People in authority are responsible for establishing the politeness norms in any setting (classroom or company)
  4. Pronouns are one of many other norms of politeness, and being explicit about your expectations saves people from trying to read your mind about that stuff

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.