Understanding Pronouns & Misgendering
Misgendering is when you refer to someone using pronouns that they don’t use to describe themself. Examples of someone’s pronouns include: they/them, she/her, he/him, she/they, and he/they. A person might also use any pronouns, no pronouns at all, or neopronouns (such as xe/xir).
There’s no way to know a person’s pronouns or gender by simply looking at them, and we shouldn’t make assumptions about either. To be clear – gender and pronouns aren’t the same thing. Pronouns are a way for us to refer to ourselves when we aren’t using our name, and our gender is a way for us to identify and think about ourselves. You might think of yourself as being 2-Spirit, non-binary, a girl, or a boy; these are all examples of genders. We are able to choose the pronouns and gender that make us feel like the best, happiest version of ourselves.
You might be worried about getting someone’s pronouns wrong, especially when you’re meeting for the first time. A few useful tips to avoid misgendering someone include:
- Using names instead of pronouns. When referring to someone whose pronouns you don’t know, it’s best to use their name instead of a specific pronoun. For example, if you want to introduce someone you just met named Quinn to your friends, you could say: “This is Quinn! We met at school. Have you met Quinn yet?” instead of saying “This is Quinn! I met him at school. Have you met him yet?”
- Getting comfortable sharing your own pronouns. Including your pronouns while introducing yourself can create a more welcoming space for everyone. All you have to do is say: “My name is ___, and my pronouns are ___.” It can feel (and be) a bit awkward to ask for someone’s pronouns immediately after meeting them, but when you introduce yourself along with your pronouns, others might feel more comfortable sharing their pronouns too.
- Knowing how to ask someone’s pronouns. Not everyone will want to share their pronouns, and that’s okay! If you realize that you don’t know someone’s pronouns, you can politely ask: “Could you remind me which pronouns you use?” or “I want to make sure that I’m addressing you the right way. What pronouns do you use?”
- Practicing using pronouns you’re not familiar with. Some of us might not have a lot of experience using they/them pronouns, no pronouns, or neopronouns, and that’s okay. We can practice using someone’s pronouns by having conversations with others or even by ourselves in the mirror. There are also useful online resources that can help you, such as games, videos, and scripts. Reading books and watching movies and shows with characters who use pronouns you’re unfamiliar with can also be helpful in the learning process.
- Changing how you think about pronouns. The best way to understand pronouns is by understanding their importance. Using correct pronouns can affirm (support) a person’s gender identity and how they think about themself. Misgendering someone can be embarrassing and painful for them and for you. But, pronouns aren’t just something to get right so that we can make people comfortable; they are a core part of who we are, our self-esteem, how we feel, and how others think about us.
What If I Accidentally Misgender Someone?
If you misgender someone, don’t panic or make a big deal out of it! Stopping the flow of conversation can lead to someone feeling even more uncomfortable. Instead, correct yourself, apologize, and move on. If another person corrects you, thank them, fix the pronouns you used, and continue the discussion.
To continue learning about pronouns and gender, check out these resources:
Author: Gillian Joseph (they/them) is a queer 2-Spirit Ihaŋktoŋwaŋ and Mdewakaŋtoŋ Dakota storyteller who grew up as a guest on Waxhaw and Catawba lands. Alongside writing, they work in the mental health field with a focus on Indigenous health sovereignty.