“Me, pronoun. The objectionable case of I. The personal pronoun in English has three cases, the dominative, the objectionable and the oppressive. Each is all three.” Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
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.