Pronoun Practice

Mon, Nov 30, 2020 8-minute read

Historically, my blog has largely been focused on technology. This was because of where I was in my career. And yet, my career doesn’t solely reside in tech. As a transgender individual, I frequently need to correct peoples use of my and other peoples pronouns. Whenever a transgender person needs to correct someone, we pay an emotional tax. While it might seem small at first, you need to consider that individuals full experience. In this post, I share techniques I found effective at getting better with pronouns.

Changing pronouns is often as easy as going from using he to she (for trans women) or she to he (for trans men). This kind of adjustment is often easier to make. Languages like English and Spanish leverage gendered forms of expression. As a result, the way we construct our sentences allows these expressions to be interchanged rather easily.

He went to the grocery store and got the things he needed.

She went to the grocery store and got the things she needed.

These languages can sometimes make it harder to adopt more neutral forms of expression. Some sentences often require adjustments for the singular they. Still, many people do this without thinking about it.

A journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources.

Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Could you please let them know where they can get it?

Many tech companies have zero-tolerance policies around discrimination and harassment (including transgender and gender non-conforming individuals). It’s important to know, that misgendering (while it may seem innocent), often falls under this policy. While these policies exist, companies rarely have systems in place to remedy the situation when it arises. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached out to human resources (HR) and nothing changed. Not because the individual didn’t want to improve, but rather they needed more assistance than what HR had to offer. This inspired me to share this list of techniques. Each technique includes several roles:

  • An initiator is an individual responsible for starting the process.
  • An offender is an individual having trouble with using pronouns.
  • A lead is the person responsible for coaching the offender into a better state.
  • The offended is the individual who the offender is having trouble with.

Technique #1 - Practice makes perfect

Initiator: Anyone. A manager, an employee, an ally, or even a passer-by. This person is responsible for reaching out to the offender’s manager. They should report the behavior they saw and why it’s problematic to the workplace.

Lead: The offender’s manager. This is important. As a manager, it is your responsibility to maintain a healthy atmosphere amongst your team. If you have problematic individuals, you work with them to help them grow. Using an individuals pronouns is no different. (Notice how I didn’t say “preferred” there? Suggesting someones pronouns are “preferred” implies that the pronouns don’t really belong to them.)

Activity:

The lead and offender set up a regularly scheduled one-on-one. This should be distinct from any existing one-on-one that may be in place. In this meeting, the offender will spend the majority of the time talking about the offended. The lead can ask probing questions that get the offender to use pronouns when referring to the offended. As they talk, the lead should correct the offender whenever they make a mistake. This should be done in the moment, not after the fact.

Progress Assessment:

The offenders progress can be assessed on several factors.

Does the offender engage with the lead in a healthy way?

An offender who doesn’t engage in the conversation will likely continue to be problematic. Many will cite that they “don’t agree with” transgender individuals. Addressing an individual the way they have asked to be addressed isn’t a matter of agreement, it’s a matter of respect. If the offender can’t come to respect their co-workers, then it might be time to show them the door.

Does the offender make fewer mistakes over time?

Making fewer mistakes over time is a great sign of progress. It shows that the offender is learning to use the proper pronouns and is consciously improving. While making progress in meetings with the lead is great, it’s also important to consider their interactions outside the one-on-one.

Does the offender continue to make mistakes when addressing the offended?

This could be another red flag. An offender who makes progress with the lead but fails to show the progress with the offended could point to something deeper. It’s important to probe the offender should this situation arise. (See my previous point about this being a matter of respect, not agreement.)

Technique #2 - Slow down!

When you move quickly, it’s easy to make mistakes. Slowing down can help you prevent mistakes BEFORE they happen.

Initiator: Anyone. While I say anyone, this technique is most effective when suggested by a manager or someone the offender sees as a mentor. This is because slowing down requires self-discipline to remain ever-present as we speak.

Lead: The offender. As a personal exercise, this can be difficult. We’ve become so accustomed to the way we speak that forcing ourselves to slow down can be challenging (especially in live conversation). This can be paired with the first technique. This approach allows the lead to set the pace of conversation with the offender. If the offender goes too fast when speaking, the lead can slow them down. The pace of conversation shouldn’t be so slow to be disruptive. Rather, just slow enough for you to think about the words coming out of your mouth.

Activity:

Whenever you engage in conversation bring yourself to the moment. Actively listen to the person you’re speaking with. Allow yourself to fully hear what the person has to say BEFORE you collect your thoughts. Take a couple breaths before responding. As you reply, bring awareness of the words you chose and how the person you’re speaking with reacts. If you make a mistake, stop and correct yourself before proceeding. Apologizing in the middle of a discussion can feel awkward to some, but can set an amazing precedent for others.

Technique #3 - Write it out

My last two techniques can be initiated by anyone, but requires an independent commitment from the offender.

Writing can be a great way to “rewire” your brain so to speak. I found this technique most helpful when I needed to think about how some sentences needed to change to accommodate the singular they. While most are drop in replacements, I would find at least one sentence that required a bit more thought. It was through writing that I was able to explore different variations of sentences. This kind of exploration is much harder to do in spoken conversation.

Activity:

Whenever you provide feedback, try to use gender neutral language. This will help avoid any unconcious biases people may have when reading your feedback. This could be for a candidate that you interview, for a coworker after a kick-ass quarter, you name it. As you write your feedback, think through each sentence. Be sure to use gender neutral pronouns when referring to the candidate. Avoid using the candidates name as well.

Many people ask how I distinguish they/them (the candidate) from they/them (the team), especially in interviews. The answer to this is simple, context propagation. Consider the use of the word it, and the context rules it follows. it typically inherits the context of the last subject.

The weight fell on the floor. It made a loud sound.

Similarly, you can use context clues to understand who they/them is referring to.

The candidate designed and developed a prototype for the system. With it, they were able to deliver the system ahead of schedule.

Also similar to it, they/them can result in an ambiguous reference.

The team and candidate spent hours debugging. Finally, they found the problematic block of code.

In this example, the second sentence meant to attribute the discovery back to the candidate. However, the way it’s written gives attribution to the entire team. It is through writing that we can learn to identify these ambiguities.

The team spent hours debugging. Finally, the candidate discovered the problematic block of code.

Technique #4 - Shift left

To help explain, let us consider a timeline with three events.

  1. Conversation horizon
  2. In conversation
  3. After conversation

Many people start out making mistakes and get better over time. Some people don’t realize when they make mistakes. As a result, awareness is often brought after the mistake has been made (#3 in our timeline).

Your goal, is to shift your awareness of mistakes left. Simply put, make an effort to recognize your mistakes in conversation rather than after them. By slowing down (see technique #2), you can help bring your awareness to your mistakes. Eventually, you want to shift your awareness so far left that you don’t make any in conversation.

Parting thoughts…

These exercises are not “one size fits all”. They are also not “one and done” types of sessions. In your career, you’ll likely work with many individuals from all walks of life. Your ability to collaborate with them is key to your success. If you cannot respect how your coworkers want to be addressed, you’re going to have a hard time being successful.