Pronoun pros and cons

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I came of age during the transition from “Miss” and “Mrs.” as the accepted female honorifics to “Ms.”

For a time, polite use depended on each woman’s preference. That approach worked until it collided with a factor familiar to IT professionals – it didn’t scale. Faced with having to memorize each woman’s preference so as not to offend, society gave a collective shrug and “Ms.” became universal.

Which gets us to the challenge of third-person singular pronouns.

As of this writing we have anywhere from the traditional five (he, she, it, one, they) to more than a dozen each for the subject (he, she, they), object (her, his, their) and so on.

Using each person’s preferred pronoun is, I’ve read, a matter of respect, obligatory if we don’t wish to disrespect anyone who hasn’t earned our disrespect.

Especially, anyone who aspires to a leadership role should, given a choice, avoid even accidental expressions of disrespect.

Much as I’d like to support those for whom use of their preferred pronoun matters, I’m faced with two barriers that, speaking just for myself, are pretty much insurmountable.

The first is the aforementioned scaling. I can barely remember names. Introduced to, say, “John Smith,” I feel a sense of accomplishment if, should I bump into this person later, I remember their first name is “John.” Also recalling “Smith” is an even harder challenge, unless and until I start to encounter John on a regular basis.

If etiquette requires that I also recall which one out of more than a dozen pronouns and honorifics John Smith prefers, I’ll have to give up on good manners – not because I don’t want to be respectful, but because I’m incapable of the cognitive weightlifting required to accomplish it.

Add to that a conundrum. Gender preferences aren’t entirely separable from sexual preferences. That being the case, I’d expect many employees would find their manager asking what their preferred pronoun is to be disrespectful, on the grounds that their sexual orientation is none of their manager’s business.

One more point, something I’m still thinking through: I’m not sure people should be empowered to choose their own pronouns in the first place. Semantics isn’t, after all, a matter of personal preference. Meanings are shared or they’re worthless. If someone wants to choose a word or words to be used when referring to them, they already have the options of choosing a nickname or, for that matter, changing their legal name, as was the case of an employee of a company I worked in who changed his name to a four digit number.

That was his (yes, his) choice, and our payroll support team cheerfully tweaked the system to accept digits in the Last_Name field so we could pay him.

So here’s my plan: If I’m introduced to John Smith and John Smith looks like a traditional male I’ll infer (not assume) I should refer to him as “he.” If she appears to be female she’ll be “she.” If for any reason I’m in doubt, they’ll be “they.”

I’ll also use the singular “they” for representative individuals. If, for example, I write about the hypothetical CIO of an equally hypothetical business (ABC, Inc.), I’ll refer to the CIO as “they” and not, as I used to write, “he/she,” (s)he, or alternating between “he” and “she.”

ABC, Inc. continues to be “it” (not “they.” Please!)

Bob’s last word: While we’re at it, we need to revisit honorifics, too, as the currently approved set … Mr. and Ms. … are gender-specific.

I suggest we adopt “M.” – not because I want everyone to self-identify as a French male, but because it’s quick, efficient, and, presumably, inoffensive.

I’d love to know how other members of the KJR community are handling the pronoun challenge. If you’re willing, please share your thinking in the Comments.

Bob’s sales pitch: Your manager has “asked” you to run a small project. They’re telling you it will be a great experience. It looks more like an onrushing bus.

I wrote Bare Bones Project Management for you. At 54 pages it’s easy to read and digest. And as its subtitle … “What you can’t not do” … suggests, I’ve already scraped away everything in the formal methodologies you’d need if you were tasked with building an aircraft carrier, but don’t need because you aren’t.

It costs a mere eight bucks (Kindle edition), so you can afford a copy for yourself, and, even better, for everyone on your project team so they know what you’re up against. For that matter, if you’re leading a larger formal project and have core or extended team members who aren’t familiar with project work, get them copies so they know what to expect, and why.

Comments (29)

  • Pronouns:
    My preferred pronouns are Your Royal Highness/Your Imperial Majesty
    He/Him will do

    Honorifics, Lest we forget:

  • I’m just waiting for when someone says that [their] pronouns are “he/her”. You know it’s going to happen — someone is going to decide that they want male pronouns for objective case and female ones for nominative. When someone asks them to explain how “he/her” works, though, [they] will get angry and say that the inquirer is giving offense, that he doesn’t ask anyone ELSE what THEIR pronouns are, does he?! And you’d better use my pronouns the way I want you to, too!

    It could get even more pronounced (heh) if some people start deciding that they’re members of the Faceless Men from “Game of Thrones”. “Hi, I’m Bob Lewis, nice to meet you. And you are?” “A girl is no one.” “Huh…?”

  • Bare Bones was indeed an excellent resource!!
    And since NYT approved ‘they’ for singular use a while back, I’m happy to follow their lead on that although I reject their idiotic standard of not capitalizing the letters in acronyms greater than 4 letters (“The New York Times’s practice is to print acronyms of proper names entirely in capitals if they have four letters or fewer: NATO, NASA, PIN, SALT. With longer acronyms, only the first letter is capitalized: Unesco, Nascar, Unicef, Nasdaq”)

    I totally agree with the lack of bandwidth to remember preferences. I find the use of ‘they’ for an individual especially confusing. I’ll be skimming an article and come upon ‘they’ and I go back and re-read more carefully and there is still only one person (Tom) and I have to go way back to when Tom was introduced to realize he is they.

  • Q: What pronouns do you use?
    A: I refer to myself using I/me.
    Q: No, what are the correct pronouns that I should use to address you?
    A: When you address me, the correct pronouns are you/your.
    Q: What are your preferred pronouns when I am talking about you?
    A: I’d prefer that you talk to me directly, rather than talking about me.
    Q: I am asking you what third-person pronouns to use when I refer to you.
    A: Then let me remove all doubt. I am a man.

  • A good friend of mine grew up in Texas and she uses “Y’all” quite effectively. And she tells me that the plural is “all Y’ll”. Not sure that I could pull it off nearly as well.

  • I’m very pleased to see you plugging your books again. I don’t know when you slowed down on that, but glad to see you doing it (of course, maybe you never stopped plugging and I’m mistaken).

    I think reading a little advert in the outro to pay for the knowledge is a very fair deal. I have the print copy of your book 🙂

  • I tried using third-person plural one weekend. The reset of the family decided I could stay third-person or stay in the house.

    What seems to have changed is attributing intent to our faux pas. What was once attributed to absent-mindedness, awkwardness, ineptitude, or poor manners is now a microaggression.

    As a child, my parents taught me that there were a variety of reasons people act in a clumsy manner. They also taught me that the closest that we can get to reading minds about intentions is look at repeated actions.

  • Two very important educational videos for this. First one is Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first”. Has an entirely different meaning now. Who knew they were so far ahead of their time.

    Second is the current season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David tackles this head-on in his typical professional manner.

  • You wrote this is 1998 and are just rerunning it now, right?

  • I “grew up” before Ms. existed. I don’t want to offend anyone, but the number of choices for pronouns is confusing. I will probably call a person by what they appear to be until they tell me otherwise.

  • Bob,
    I doubt that people would find a manager asking their pronoun preference to be disrespectful. And pronouns are decoupled from sexual preferences.

    • Where I’d challenge you is this: I agree that pronouns are decoupled from sexual preferences. But (you knew “but” was coming, didn’t you?) … but, pronouns aren’t decoupled from gender identity, and gender identity is at least somewhat coupled to sexual preferences.

      Which means pronouns are coupled to sexual preference – just one step removed.

  • I pretty much agree with everything that you said, Bob. But then I’m an old fossil and semi-retired so I don’t have to worry much about workplace etiquette and prickly colleagues.

    One small argument in support of identifying gender preference on emails is when corresponding with internationals whom I’ve never met in person (which is even more of an issue in COVID times); their names give no clue as to how they should be addressed. And of course, that’s also true today with so many androgynous names (e.g., Taylor).

  • I, too, am of an age where titles of respect are expected.

    He is a man. She is a woman. They is plural. If anyone takes offense, perhaps that person is an it. For example, I was talking to Frank and it said …

  • On the pronouns
    I agree with your choices and have problems with ‘they’ and rereading to find the person I missed. But I think this is transitory and gender neutral pronouns will emerge in the future which will reduce the number but the resultant loss of information will definitely hurt some forms of communication. (e.g. romance novel genre will suffer)
    I am avoiding changing my email to include my preferred pronouns as a clear signal that I am old and crotchety and just “can’t be arsed”.

    On the books
    When I worked on site (PM coach for accidental PM’s) I had a stack of them that I would drop off to the poor unfortunates as a gentle entry into the the mindset they would need. Worked a charm but alas we are now all at home so follow through with actual reading has fallen dramatically. I guess standing in their cube and handing them the book with my he/him/his friendly demeanor was actually worth something after all.
    Thanks for doing my job for me all of these years 🙂

  • I’m in favor of gender / species neutral pronouns as found in newer Sci-Fi; if everyone is Xe, then I don’t have to think about it too much. If you read any non-hetero romance, you’ll find that 1. people can work around it and 2. the difference between the characters and a human reader is that humans can keep track of the speaker even when their comments are not attributed every time they speak (as per jurisfiction novels).
    In the short term, I respect people’s right to define pronouns and appreciate what it tells me about them. I also cannot keep track of names — if you’re lucky I’ll remember your email address and be able to do a lookup before I have to call you something out loud.

  • The developments around gender pronouns have challenged me. How can we be polite and respectful, without getting lost in our conversations? I’ve been lost when talking about people in my personal circle whose gender expression doesn’t match their sex as identified at birth. Try as I might, I have gotten lost with “they” and “them,” where it was unclear whether a single person or a couple was being referenced.

    I do hope we evolve our language to include commonly used and understood gender-neutral pronouns. Common use is important, as it will help diminish judgment and reduce the awkwardness many of us are currently feeling.

    Let’s separate the challenge of understanding from the commitment to acceptance and kindness. I must admit that I do not understand gender identity differing from biological sex. It seems to be at odds with notions of gender equality. If men and women are equal and can have the same capabilities, rights, choices, obligations, and needs, without regard to their sex, then what does it mean to be male or female other than to have the corresponding body?

    I truly want to understand, but so far, I don’t. At present, I’ve concluded that much as I’d like to, I don’t have to understand. I just need to accept everyone as they are and give them the utmost respect. My lack of understanding doesn’t have to stand in the way of treating people well.

    So in my personal life and in the workplace, my approach for now is to use the apparently correct pronoun when available and to honor anyone’s request to be referred to differently. The situation is evolving, and hopefully, so am I.

  • I have tried to live by the credo outlined by Maya Angelou: To do the best that I know how, and when I learn better, then do better. Therefore I find nothing wrong with the idea of beginning with the best information available. Isn’t that what good IT management is?

    I think you’ll find that most people who prefer “non-standard” pronouns feel the same way about those as they do about the pronunciation of their name. You may get it wrong a few times, no big deal – but if you start saying it wrong on purpose, it’s fairly obvious that you intend offense.

    When a person refuses to update their practices when that person learns that they’ve been causing any sort of harm – well, that’s bad practice.

    Unfortunately, when it comes to this particular issue, we all too often see many people who insist upon continuing to cause offense to others, because they are personally offended when others do not conform to their own sensibilities. Yes, even people who would never do such a thing in other situations.

    And that’s bad management.

    “No, it’s too much to remember. No, it’s too confusing. No, it’s silly.”

    No. You don’t want to make the effort.

    I’m lucky. I’m perfectly comfortable being a man who looks like one, using standard pronouns and all. I don’t have to put up with this crap. Being white, I also didn’t have to put up with being called “boy” most of my adult life, but growing up in the 60’s I saw it happen to a lot of other people, and those committing the offense didn’t see anything offensive about that, either.

    Working in IT, we are told almost daily that we must learn to live with change. Well…things change outside the server room, folks.

  • I’m not understanding why you think gender and sexual orientation are related. I know a person who changed from female to male to become a gay man. I know another person who changed from female to male to become a straight man. So far as I understand, neither biological sex nor gender relates to sexual orientation.

    I resisted adding pronouns to my email signature (or even having one!) until our organization made including them the policy. And I agree with the person who said they can come in useful for people with names that don’t suggest a default pronoun.

    I agree with those who struggle with they/them as a singular. I like the ze/zir gender-neutral pronouns, but I doubt they’re going to enter into common usage.

    • I completely agree with you that gender and sexual orientation aren’t the same. But I do think they’re related … I’d say “correlated” … because my everyday experience tells me they are.

      Look at it this way: If I bump into someone whose name is “Bill,” and whose appearance is traditional male, I don’t know that Bill is heterosexual. But if I had to place a bet, I’d win more often than I’d lose.

      And whether or not you accept the idea that they’re correlated, I suspect you’d agree that many people would find the question “What’s your pronoun?” — which unavoidably is the same as asking, “What’s your gender?” — intrusive.

  • Once upon a time, I recall being taught in English class how to write without gender. Admittedly, to today’s ear, writing to avoid inference of one’s gender sounds stilted, but perhaps it’s time for another blast from the past. An Eighties hit in my case.

  • This isn’t about putting in extra effort; it is about being pressured or compelled to violate conventions that some of us value. Let’s say I have a colleague named Jym who prefers unconventional pronouns like “they/their”, “xe/xir”, or pronouns not corresponding to Jym’s obvious biological sex. Out of sincere respect and politeness, I’d be willing to make a significant effort to accommodate Jym by avoiding pronouns altogether when I speak about Jym, despite the extra verbosity. But if I were required to actually *use* Jym’s chosen pronouns, I would consider that demand to be a significant imposition on my freedom of expression. Sorry, but I prefer not to eviscerate the meaning of words and torture the English language as a favor to Jym. And if either Jym or my employer goes as far as demanding compulsory compliance, then it was never really about Jym’s hurt feelings – it’s about demonstrating their power to suppress the speech of those who won’t buy in.

  • This isn’t about putting in extra effort; it is about being pressured or compelled to violate conventions that some of us value. Let’s say I have a colleague named Jym who prefers unconventional pronouns like “they/their”, “xe/xir”, or pronouns not corresponding to Jym’s obvious biological sex. Out of sincere respect and politeness, I’d be willing to make a significant effort to accommodate Jym by avoiding pronouns altogether when I speak about Jym, despite the extra verbosity. But if I were required to actually *use* Jym’s chosen pronouns, I would consider that demand to be a significant imposition on my freedom of expression. Sorry, but I prefer not to eviscerate the meaning of words and torture the English language as a favor to Jym. And if either Jym or my employer goes as far as demanding compulsory compliance, then it was never really about Jym’s hurt feelings – it’s about exercising power and control over not just the words but even the *grammar* we are permitted to use.

  • I am a white, cis, hetero, male. So I do not have first-hand experiences with mis-gendering. However, I am committed to creating inclusive and welcoming school / workplace environment for all. So I’m open to listening to those who have to face this.

    Here’s a perspective shared in the June 17, 2019 The LGBTQ+ Experiment newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/lgbtqexperiment/letters/what-is-misgendering).

    “When you misgender me, you tell me many things. You tell me that you know who I am better than I know myself. You tell me you are not safe or trustworthy. You tell me you have scrutinized my physical appearance, made invasive extrapolations, and sorted me without my consent into a category based on your conclusions.”

    Is that how you want to come across to your students / co-workers / employees / customers?

    • I’m aware of this thought process. And I have to say, I find this sort of pseudo-telepathic complaint as objectionable as the writer finds “misgendering.” The complainer has no idea how the person they’re (or is it xe’er? per’er? faer?) complaining decided which pronoun to use.

      Whatever the legitimacy is regarding the various proposed additions to our pronoun lexicon, its proponents ought to acknowledge that in the short term they’ve created confusion … especially because so few of the proposed new pronouns have been widely and publicly defined.

      If they had been defined then the misclassification complaint would have more legitimacy. But griping that someone used the wrong undefined term to refer to someone else is, I think, a bit much.

      A wiser person than I am recommended that, all things being equal, a person should assume positive intent. I’d even back it off a notch and suggest assuming neutral intent.

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