The more you learn about gender, the more you learn that the things you’ve taken for granted as true are very likely wrong. Your sense of the dimensionality of other people’s gender identities becomes more nuanced and heightened. Where in the past, you might have just assumed someone you met was either a man or a woman, you might start to recognize there are more complex aspects of their gender that you can’t put your finger on.
The deeper you delve and the more of a sense you get, the more you’re likely to find yourself in situations where you’re not sure what pronoun is accurate for someone you meet.
Don’t be discouraged if that’s happening to you. It’s a very positive sign.
But it brings up an important question: once you recognize you need more information, what’s the best way find out what the right pronouns for someone are? It can be touchy territory, and you don’t want to unintentionally harm someone with how you talk to them.
Here are some quick tips for how to learn someone’s pronouns in a way that is likely to help them feel supported instead of unsafe.
Yes, it’s OK to ask (thoughtfully)
First of all, yes, it’s OK to ask someone what their pronouns are. While it’s a sensitive question, it’s not an offensive one (I wrote a post about offensive things to avoid saying to or about trans people here if you want more on that subject). Asking someone about their pronouns signals a few positive things right away:
- You are not transphobic or truscum. Trangender folks don’t always know who it’s safe to be out to, so by asking someone about their pronouns, you’re sending a signal that you’re not going to be hateful about someone’s identity—and that’s really helpful for them to know.
- You’re willing to use someone’s correct pronouns, even if they’re not what you initially assumed. Many trans folks are used to people acting like using their correct pronouns is a huge imposition, so to avoid dealing with that kind of conflict, many of us just don’t bring it up. By asking someone about their pronouns, you’re showing them that you won’t respond as though they are burdening you, which is a big relief.
- You care about understanding. By asking someone what their pronouns are, you’re demonstrating that you don’t assume you know someone’s gender better than they do—which shows that you’re actually interested in learning who they are.
By asking a trans person what their pronouns are, you’re covering a lot of ground in helping them feel safe—especially if they do happen to use a pronoun other than the one most people assume pertains to them.
But, it is extremely important that you keep the sensitive nature of this question in mind.
Ask them one-on-one
It’s much better to ask a person about their pronouns one-on-one than in a group setting. The world is often very unkind to trans people, so not everyone is public with their gender identity—for their own safety. This means being asked in front of other people can push a trans person into a position where they have to lie about their pronouns if they’re going to feel safe—which ultimately shoves them deeper into the closet and can leave them feeling awful.
They might also feel pressured to out themselves before they’re ready, which can lead to a lot of stress, problems in everyday life they weren’t ready to deal with, and anxiety.
If you want to help a trans person feel safe answering that question, it’s best to bring it up in a one-on-one setting.
You don’t need to make it a big deal—just casually checking in with them in passing can go a long way. It’s always a good idea to let them know your pronouns first. Something like “hey, I haven’t gotten the chance to ask you yet. I use he/him pronouns. If you don’t mind me asking, what pronouns do you use?” will do the trick.
Also, keep in mind that if it’s a new acquaintance, they might not feel totally safe being honest with you right off the bat. It might take some time before they feel comfortable opening up to you. Be gentle and patient.
Don’t single one person out in a group
The safety factor for people who might not be out is important, but there’s still a place for talking about pronouns in groups. It can be really great to regularly give people a chance to introduce their pronouns. If you treat pronoun conversations like a normal thing, it can encourage people who are currently closeted to feel safer coming out.
Just remember that if you ask anyone to state their pronouns in a group, make sure you ask everyone else, too. Don’t target any specific person. Set an example by sharing your pronouns first, even if you’re sure everyone knows what they are. If someone in the group doesn’t know what’s happening, be prepared to explain to them the significance of sharing pronouns. It could be as simple as something like this:
“We make a lot of assumptions about other peoples’ genders that aren’t always correct. Checking in about what pronouns everyone uses is a great way to make sure we’re respecting each other and looking out for each other.”
Don’t put the burden of explaining the significance of using the right pronouns on the people who seem to not conform to gender norms. Trans and gender nonconforming people get singled out a lot already, so the more you can prevent that, the better.
Check in before helping “enforce” their pronouns
It’s a wonderful thing for me when my cisgender friends jump in and remind people that I use they/them pronouns when I get misgendered. It keeps me from feeling like I’m fighting a losing battle, and shows me that there are people in my life who believe in me and aren’t going to just act like the person I am doesn’t matter.
But that doesn’t mean that’s always the best thing to do. There’s another piece to the puzzle: it’s never OK to “out” someone.
Like I mentioned earlier, not everyone is public about their gender identity—typically for safety reasons. So if you correct someone who misgenders your friend before they’ve decided they’re ready to come out, you are then “outing” that person, which is a terrifying and disempowering experience.
Both respecting where someone is in their coming out process and helping defend them when they get misgendered are important ways to show support.
Check in with them about whether or not they are out, and if they’re ready for the public “outness” that comes with you stepping in to defend them when they get misgendered.
“Preferred pronouns” is a misnomer
It’s very common to see the phrase “preferred pronouns” to describe someone’s pronouns, but we’re dealing with something more profound than a preference. We’re dealing with accuracy.
For me, “they/them” are not my preferred pronouns. They are pronouns that tell the truth about who I am, instead of a lie—like the pronouns “she/her” or “he/him” do.
Even though “preferred pronouns” is a pretty common phrase, I suggest not using it. Instead, ask someone one of these questions:
- What are your pronouns?
- What are the correct pronouns to use for you?
- What’s an accurate pronoun I can use when I’m talking about you?
Pronouns are not about preference. They’re about truthfulness.
Thanks for being interested in helping people in your life feel safe and empowered to share the truth about who they are with you.
Got more questions about how to ask someone about their pronouns? Leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it.