Although we’re all generally familiar with pronouns as a concept—words we use every day when talking or in writing to refer to people in lieu of their names—we often default to using binary pronouns without thinking about it.
When we speak to or about others, we use she/her or he/him pronouns, which automatically imply and assume gender. These associations are not always accurate. We may assume how someone identifies or what they want to be called by how they look, what their name is, or even by recalling what labels and pronouns they used in the past—but that can be incredibly harmful when you get it wrong.
“A lot of times, it’s simple for any one of us to fall into the trap of ‘Oh, this person’s name is Jennifer, she uses she/her pronouns’ or ‘This person has a buzzed haircut and wears pants and button downs. He uses he/him pronouns.’ But the truth is, we don’t know anyone’s gender based on name or appearance,” says Alex, a nonbinary care coordinator at Included Health. “Take my name for instance. Alex is a very common name that could lean toward the traditional masculine or feminine stereotypes. When I communicate with people via email or I’m being addressed by a stranger in a virtual setting, they almost always assume the male gender and address me as ‘Mr. Alex Fisher’ or use he/him pronouns.” For them, those assumptions are jarring and hurtful. “Having an intentional practice of asking for a person’s pronouns or starting a conversation by introducing yourself with your pronouns helps signal to the folx around you that you are someone who attempts to steer clear of making assumptions and instead, values a more meaningful and whole-human relationship with the humans around you.”
Unlearning our assumptions about gender and language
As Alex explains, learning about pronouns, and unlearning our assumptions about identity, along with making an active effort to use someone’s correct pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show respect and make someone feel safe and seen.
Someone might “look” like a woman or a man to you based on your cultural understanding of what those words and concepts mean, which is why it’s so important to re-evaluate how we act and what language we use. Trans and nonbinary people are not a monolith, and there is no specific way that someone needs to look in order to use specific pronouns. For example, not all people who look more androgynous use neutral pronouns, and not all people who look feminine use she/her pronouns.
When someone shares their pronouns they are telling you how they want to be referred to. It’s crucial to respect everyone’s pronouns—but especially trans people’s—to show respect and create an inclusive environment. This also applies to situations when the person you’re speaking about is not there. It still matters that you use the correct pronouns, because you model that respect to others, and show that they should also be referring to that person in the same way.
Pronouns beyond “she” and “he”
Although they/them/theirs pronouns are the most commonly known gender-neutral pronoun, there are other options like ze/hir (pronounced: zee/heer), xe/xem (pronounced zee/zem), fae/faer (pronounced fay/fair), and ve/vem (pronounced vay/vem). People choose the pronouns that best reflect their personhood, and which pronouns you use for an individual might change depending on context including environment, who is around (virtually or in person), and how safe they feel being “out.”
There’s a good chance that you’ll meet people who use pronouns that you were previously not familiar with. You might make mistakes sometimes—but it’s very important to apologize, correct yourself, and move on. This takes practice as well as self-accountability, and asking others to hold you accountable. Taking this work seriously isn’t just about doing the “politically correct” thing or not being shamed. It’s about caring for your fellow human beings, seeing them and affirming them for who they are, and creating a sense of psychological and physical safety. Misgendering people can lead them to feel confused, anxious, depressed, and even suicidal.
“Even if you’ve never been called the wrong pronoun, think about a time when some basic aspect of your identity was blithely disregarded,” says Evan, a nonbinary care coordinator at Included Health, who uses they/them pronouns. “Think about the teacher who always pronounced your name wrong, or the acquaintance who kept introducing themselves to you at parties as though you’d never met before. It doesn’t feel good to interact with people who don’t bother to remember who you are! When someone calls me the wrong pronoun, I feel like they’re talking about someone else. That sense of disconnection is jarring and disruptive to our conversation. In the past, I’ve had meetings grind to an abrupt halt because a colleague referred to me incorrectly and nobody could figure out who they were talking about!”
Not everyone uses only one set of pronouns. Some people use multiple pronouns. If someone says they use multiple pronouns, you can and should always ask them if there are specific pronouns that are best to use in certain situations and not in others, or if the person would simply prefer for you to use the pronouns interchangeably. Remember, there is no one way for someone to look non-binary, trans, or any gender. Varying pronouns can be used by anyone, regardless of how they present themselves physically or what their style is, and pronouns also don’t dictate or describe someone’s gender identity. Many non-binary and genderqueer people use more binary pronouns that you might only associate with someone being a woman or a man.
“Being intentional about pronouns is important for everyone for the same reason that being intentional about remembering each others’ names is important for everyone. We indicate our respect for each other and honor each other as individuals when we use the right names and pronouns for one another,” says Evan. “For cisgender people, even if you feel that your pronouns might be obvious going by the way that you present your gender, proactively sharing your pronouns with others indicates a baseline level of awareness that people may use pronouns that you don’t expect. It’s a signal that you are aware that trans people exist and that you consider yourself to be affirming and welcoming to trans people.”
What can you do if you misgender someone by using the incorrect pronouns?
There’s no need to apologize excessively, Evan explains. When you do that, “it derails the conversation into a conversation about your own feelings, and puts the other person in an awkward spot of feeling pressured to comfort and reassure you after you were needlessly rude to them.” Depending on the social context, this can be made into a bigger burden for trans people to figure out how to handle in a way that is “polite” enough. “Especially in the workplace, where everyone wants to have cordial and pleasant relationships with colleagues, the other person may feel the impulse to tell you ‘It’s okay’ or ‘No need for apologies.’ Instead of expecting them to soothe your feelings for the sake of your working relationship, take responsibility for your part by committing to using the right pronouns,” says Evan.
Someone correcting you when you misgender them also doesn’t necessarily mean they’re angry with you. “If I’ve taken the time to correct someone and introduce my nonbinary gender identity and pronouns and essentially given a quick Gender 101 course, it means two things: 1. I trust that you’re a safe person and will work hard to honor my existence and 2. I love you and feel hopeful that this will not be a regular occurrence in our social exchanges,” says Alex. However, when someone repeatedly uses the wrong pronouns, it sends a strong message. “When someone continues to misgender me, those lines of trust crack and I start to feel less and less safe in that person’s presence. I feel as if who I am at my core isn’t allowed and that I am not worth the effort.”
You don’t have to try to over-explain your mistake, but it’s important to do some internal reflection about why you’ve used the wrong pronoun for someone. Were you making assumptions about the way they dress, look, or sound? All that matters is that you recognize your internal biases, correct your behavior, and use the correct pronouns for the person you misgendered. This will take practice, and there will be a learning curve.
“Practice! Stand in front of the mirror and have a conversation with yourself about one of your nonbinary or trans friends, colleagues, and people in your life. Use language that forces you to use their pronouns and chosen name,” suggests Alex. “Even better, if your own gender stereotypes are holding you back from seeing the fullness of your friend, look at a photo of them while you’re talking. Force your brain to rewire itself around a more expansive view of gender identity and expression. And follow trans, nonbinary and gender expansive folx on social media! The more you immerse yourself, the easier it will become, especially if your social circles tend to be more homogenous.”
How to use and respect pronouns
- “What pronouns do you use?”
- “How would you like me to refer to you?”
- “How would you like to be addressed?”
- “Can you remind me which pronouns you like for yourself?”
- “My name is Colin and my pronouns are he, him, and his. What about you?”
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About the author
Our Editorial Team is composed of our leaders, clinicians, and care coordinators, as well as other Included Health employees, all who are working to raise the standard of healthcare for everyone. Together, they combine decades of subject matter experience across all fields of healthcare.