Words are powerful. They help us to communicate and describe the world around us, but they also help describe us to the world and allow deeper understanding and connection beyond the eyes can see or assume. Because of this, the words we use to refer to ourselves are the most personal of all… in particular, our names and pronouns.
In the English language, our pronouns are, by default, tied to and in reference to our gender identity. (“he/him/his” for males, “she/her/hers” for females). However, our outward appearing “presenting” gender does not always match our gender identity. This is why it’s important to ask for someone’s pronouns and never assume. More than just that, asking for a person’s pronouns is a strong, outward way to show you care for and respect the other person, allowing them to feel validated and seen.
Some people use different names and different pronouns depending on the situation and to whom they are speaking. This is due to a number of factors, most often for safety. For example, a person may be openly transgender with friends and out socializing but not at work, at school, or at home with family.
An easy way to break the pronoun ice is to mention your pronouns first when introducing yourself. “Hello, my name is ___, and I go by ___/___ pronouns.” By being the first to say your pronouns, it encourages the other person to do the same (as well as let them know how to address you). It may feel awkward at first, but as you make an effort to actively say your pronouns or ask for others’ pronouns, it will eventually become a natural and routine getting-to-know-you question.
But what about people who identify as not fully male or female? Or both? Or neither? Most commonly, these folks will use the pronouns “they/them/their.” Historically, “they” has been used as a singular pronoun whenever someone’s gender is unknown (a linguistic staple stretching back 600 years and used by Emily Dickenson, Agatha Christie, and Shakespeare to name just a few!). But there are others such as: “ze/zir/zirs,” “xie/hir/hirs,” “en/en/ens,”and many others.
But what if you make a mistake and use the wrong pronouns when speaking to someone? Simply apologize and move on. The apology shows that you are willing to learn and that you care. Making a big thing about it only creates more awkwardness for the other person.