If you’ve ever referred to someone without using their name, you’ve probably used a pronoun. It’s how we talk about people indirectly. Let’s think about my grandma as an example.
She lives by the sea and her favourite grandchild is…well, me! See how I did that? My grandma’s pronouns are she and her. She likes gardening. I’m going to see her next week.
When we talk about a woman, we usually use she or her, and when we talk about a man, it’s usually he or his. When we don’t know the gender of the person we’re talking about, we tend to use they, their or them. For example: Someone left their coat in the office. I hope they come back to get it!
Gender neutral alternatives
Make sense so far?
Some people don’t use gendered pronouns, so we can use they and them in the same way we might when we don’t know someone’s gender. Or we can use other gender neutral alternatives that you see here on the screen.
Let me give you an example: Alex’s pronouns are they and them.
Alex said they would leave the report on their desk for you. I told them I would pass on the message.
This can seem hard to do at first, especially if you used to refer to the person as he or she, but much like when someone changes their surname and you get used to using the new one, you’ll get the hang of they/them pronouns too!
Finding out the pronouns someone uses is a great way to help promote an inclusive culture at work, since we can’t always tell a person’s pronouns just by looking at them. Many people now include them on their email signature, lanyard or social media.
Even if you think yours are obvious, stating them to others can show that it’s safe for them to share their own.
It’s important to understand that when people do state their pronouns, they do this not to stand out or draw attention to themselves, but to bring all of themselves – their ‘authentic’ self – to work.
I find it helpful to think of pronouns as an extension of someone’s name. If I wouldn’t want to get their name wrong, then I shouldn’t get their pronouns wrong either!
So what should you do if you make a mistake and get someone’s pronouns wrong? (This is called ‘misgendering’). The best thing to do is to correct yourself and move on.
Try not to make a big deal out of the situation by explaining how bad you feel. This can end up putting the other person in the awkward situation of having to reassure you, when you’re the one who made the mistake!
Using a moment of mistaken misgendering to ask lots of questions isn’t a great idea, either.
Remember, people deal with this every day of their lives – it’s not up to them to provide pronoun 101 every time someone slips up. If you feel unsure when using someone’s pronouns, try practising them in your head or out loud when you’re somewhere private.
Saying them over will help it become more natural over time.
Remember, these little words matter because getting them right validates the other person’s identity, and when we feel safe to bring our authentic selves to work, everyone benefits.
To learn more about the power of inclusive language at work, check out Brendan Courtney’s article for Mix on The New Lexicon of Language Landmines.