A person’s pronouns can be difficult to navigate. Feeling like offence may be caused if the wrong pronouns are used when addressing an individual, they can often be overlooked or ignored altogether. The correct use of pronouns is a way in which your colleagues feel included within your organisation; this has a positive impact on their wellbeing, which in turn helps productivity and efficiency. This guide helps you get it right.
There are many words across languages that we use to substitute nouns or noun phrases, such as 'she', 'he', 'you', 'them' and 'this'. We can only use pronouns to replace nouns when we have already referred to the noun at an earlier point. For example, “Ishbel prefers in-person meetings” would become “she/they prefer in-person meetings” in future references.
It is an important part of clear and respectful communication to get anyone’s personal and specific pronouns correct.
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Gendered and Gender-Neutral Pronouns
Gender pronouns are personal pronouns that refer specifically to people. Some can read as neutral (they/them), feminine (she/her) or masculine (he/him). Many others exist, for example ‘ze’, ‘hir’, ‘hir’, ‘hirs’ and ‘hirself’. However, people use the pronouns they feel most comfortable with.
In the English language, describing people as 'they’, ‘he’ or ‘she’ is nothing new to us - there are examples of the usage of the singular ‘they’ in 14th century literature - but what people might not be aware of is the growing prevalence in the usage of other valid gender-neutral and alternative pronouns.
A person’s identity is important to them. Being misgendered is uncomfortable for all parties involved and, in many cases, can be offensive or could indeed constitute a form of harassment.
Gender identity is not visible, it is an internal sense of one’s gender. People’s appearance and gender expression may not always match their identity or chosen pronouns. In a diverse workforce, for example, naming conventions - such as putting the family name first - and language differences, may lead to confusion.
What actions can I take to foster the use of correct pronouns in the workplace?
It is important to not assume each other’s pronouns. Sometimes you can pick up by listening and copying how they talk about themselves. When in doubt, always ask.
To normalise this and help everyone feel more included, it is good to ask everyone you encounter which pronouns they use and introduce yourself with your pronouns: “I am/my name is (name), and my pronouns are (pronoun set)”. Other useful ways to help normalise and remember each other’s pronouns is to include them in email signatures or on Zoom/Team call names. For many people, this should be easy enough. However, whilst this is encouraged, not everyone may feel comfortable sharing their pronouns and valid reasons for this which should be respected.
What if I get it wrong or make a mistake?
Apologise! It is okay, everyone makes mistakes. What is important is to apologise and correct yourself before moving on.
What if someone else makes a mistake?
It really depends as there are many important considerations. Is the person there? Do they use other pronouns other than the ones you heard? Do they use them publicly or in the context of work? Have you heard them correct others? The answers to such questions will determine the most appropriate action. It may appear convoluted but with practice, it can become second nature and can prevent accidentally outing someone or misgendering them.
If you feel it is appropriate to intervene, it is usually right to gently correct that person. Most of the time, it is done directly, i.e. ‘Just to note Alex uses they/them pronouns’. Though if directly correcting them there and then is not an option, you can take them aside or consciously use the correct pronouns yourself in front of them: ‘Alex said they would be available for a call at 3pm’.
What does it mean if someone uses “he/they” or “she/they”?
That person uses both pronouns, and you can alternate between them when referring to them. It is important that you mix it up and do not just use one or the other. The same goes for people who prefer all pronouns.
What if I do not have the opportunity to ask someone about their pronouns?
Many people default to using singular ‘they’ if they cannot work out or find someone’s pronouns, treating it as a catch all gender-inclusive term. However, it will not work for everyone, especially those who are agender - without a gender - or whose chosen pronouns are an important and integral part of their gender identity. Referring to someone by the name or with other descriptive phrases ‘the Earl Grey drinker’, or “the one wearing the red jumper’ may be safe for a while but it is always best to find out.
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