She/He/They/X: How to Ask Someone Their Preferred Pronouns

Pronouns are used in everyday conversation; we use them to refer to each other without saying each other’s full name, and as a part of the English language and other languages, it is how we are taught to refer to one another.  Referring to someone as she/he/they/ze identifies that person in the third person.    You may be accustomed to assuming someone’s pronouns based on how someone is presenting.  However, it is important to reconsider before assuming and always ask someone what their pronouns are.    People are complex; even if someone may look, sound, or seem like they use one form of pronoun and not another, it does not mean that it is true.  If you may see someone as feminine or masculine, that does not mean they prefer the pronouns you associate with them.  If someone consistently were to use pronouns different from the ones you identified, that could feel frustrating, degrading, and invalidating and a range of feelings and thoughts may occupy your mind.  It is a sign of respect and awareness when using someone’s preferred pronouns.  It is a privilege not to have to think about whether someone will misuse your pronouns or misgender you, be aware of others’ preferences, and make an effort to ask for someone’s pronouns in a respectful manner.

Understanding Gender and Sex

There are terms, definitions, and identities to be aware of when trying to be intentional about how you understand others, specifically regarding classifications of human sex and gender.

Sex is the biological status of someone, assigned based on anatomy, typically at birth.  The three main categorizations are male, female, and intersex.  Society can often assume gender and sex are the same; however, this is not true.  Sex is based on biology, typically assigned at birth; gender is not.

Gender refers to the characteristics of a woman, girl, man, or boy, which includes beliefs and expectations.  Gender is a social construct; it is a term used to categorize people and comes with expectations.  For gender, these expectations may mean how you should act, who you should love, how you should dress and appear, whether you should wear makeup, how you should feel, what sports you should play, where you should have body hair, and so on.  A gender social construct that happens from birth is whether a baby is wrapped in blue or pink based on their sex.

Gender identity can be a complex topic to understand because many people have been taught by society that there are only two genders and two sexes and that your sex determines your gender and vice versa.    For example, if your sex is male, then you identify as a man; however, that is not the case.  Gender identity is an expression of who each individual is.

If you are cisgender, your gender and sex match up based on what you were born as and what gender you identify with, for example, if your sex is male and you identify as a man.  However, many people are not cisgender, and that is entirely okay!  Transgender folks have been assigned one sex at birth but identify with a different gender.  For example, someone is assigned as male sex at birth but identifies as a female gender. Gender dysphoria is a DSM VI categorization that refers to the distress someone feels from the juxtaposition of their assigned sex and their gender identity.  Please read my colleague’s blog here to learn more about transgender folks’ journey and a biopsychosocial perspective.    Some people also identify as nonbinary, genderqueer, gender fluid, polygender, and many other genders.

There are also gender stereotypes to be aware of, like women staying at home as homemakers and men working and making a living for the family.  This blog about challenging gender roles in ‘The Barbie Movie’ brings to light a cinematic display of the harmful causes of seeing men as only able to be one way and women as only able to be another way.  As humans, we are so much more complex than just our gender, our sex, and how we identify.

Understanding that someone may not present as the gender you suspect or society suspects, they may have a step in the right direction.  Everyone has the right to be who they are and express themselves accordingly, making the world a more diverse and inclusive place.

How Do You Ask Someone Their Pronouns?

Considering there are many ways people identify, many genders, and diversity in how we present and how people may transition, it is important to be intentional with how we use pronouns.  Asking someone for their pronouns creates an inclusive environment for diverse people.  Here are some tips to be inclusive when asking for pronouns:

  • Create opportunities to share and learn someone’s pronouns. In a one-on-one conversation, introduce yourself and include your pronouns: “Hi, my name is Lily, and I go by she/her.”
  • Include your pronouns in your email signature, such as your Zoom name, social media bio, work bio, nametag, etc.
  • It is okay to ask if you do not know, “What pronouns do you use?” “What pronouns do you go by?” “What pronouns would you like for me to use when I refer to you?”
  • Use their name if you do not know someone’s pronouns and refer to them in the third person.
  • Practice asking, practice using pronouns, and normalizing pronouns correctly.

If you make a mistake, apologize, but also move forward, continuing to work on your use of pronouns.    Correct others gently when someone is misgendered, and encourage each other to use pronouns correctly.   Make sure we continue to practice, hold each other accountable, and recognize and take accountability for our mistakes.  There is a learning curve that does not excuse anyone from misgendering another person, but it does remind us that it requires practice.  We all make mistakes; sometimes, our parents call us incorrectly. Be patient with yourself, and practice.

Some people may have multiple pronouns by which they go.  Sometimes, people’s preferred pronouns may look like she/they; if that is the case, they have identified with two types of pronouns.  You can refer to them as she/her/hers and they/them.  There is a space for all of us, and pronouns may evolve, more may develop, and continue to diversify.  Staying aware, being respectful, asking, and creating opportunities to share pronouns can create a more inclusive environment for all to express themselves and feel safe in every space.


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