Being Pro-Pronouns

October is a time for National Coming Out Day, International Pronouns Day, and also happened to be the month in which I was added to our institution’s Diversity Council and attended my first meeting thereof. So I’ve been thinking about pronouns more than usual (which is actually pretty often to begin with) for a few weeks.

I think it’s fairly common knowledge now that including your pronouns as part of your introduction is a simple practice that we can all participate in, that makes everyone (especially the trans community) feel more welcome in any space. We as a profession (and as a society) are talking more about doing this, including here on ACRLog, with mentions in posts like this one from guest poster Adrianna Martinez, and this one from Emily Hampton Haynes.

One of the first things I noticed when I was offered my new job (I haven’t been here a year, it still counts as “new,” right?) was that the person in human resources who was sending me paperwork and instructions had included her pronouns in her email signature, and I thought that was great. One of the first things I did when I got my institutional email account set up was to write my email signature, and deliberate for a solid five minutes over where my pronouns should go in said signature. (Under my name? Under the wall of text that is my contact information? On a line unto itself, separated from both name and contact information by a blank line?)

I have seen many email signatures from people across the institution and outside our institution with their pronouns in their email signatures. I have seen conference nametags that provide space for your pronouns, and I’ve seen people add their pronouns to conference nametags that did not provide that designated space. I have seen one or two people with colorful buttons on their lanyards declaring their pronouns.

Honestly, at first, the English major that still resides inside of me was just really excited that so many people can identify a part of speech so readily. But then I also got really excited that normalizing the sharing of pronouns is really happening. The first few times I brought it up (in meetings, in conference presentations, in introductions to new people) it felt clunky and awkward, but now it’s a more natural thing to do. I like to introduce myself first or early when we “go around the room” in a meeting, because if I start the trend, others will follow my pattern: name, pronouns, job title.

To give you context for the rest of this paragraph, I am a cisgender woman. My name is Alex, as you may have noticed. Fun fact about me: my husband’s name is also Alex. So, clearly, I am very aware that our first name is a unisex name. But I’m also very aware that most people’s default assumption is that someone named Alex is male. Even with my pronouns listed in my email signature, I get email replies addressed to “Mr. Harrington.” (To be entirely fair, I also get email replies addressed to “Alexandria,” since my institutional Outlook listing uses “Alexandra” instead of “Alex.”) Also, for a few months after I got married, some people who knew my husband’s name called me “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]” even though I frequently made jokes about how I didn’t change my last name only because paperwork would be a nightmare if we both had the same first AND last names. Honestly, none of these things bothered me very much, because I don’t really care if people think I prefer “Mr.” over “Mrs.” or that my first name has an “i” in it, or that I took my husband’s last name. However, this is not all about me. It can be very upsetting, for example, for a trans or genderfluid person to be referred to as the incorrect gender, or for a woman in a same-sex marriage to be assumed to have taken her spouse’s last name.

The only point I have here is really just that we should all commit to paying attention. My rule of thumb has always been to address someone in an email however they signed their last email to me. This has also unfailingly helped me navigate issues like whether someone prefers to be called by their first name or “Dr. Last Name.” If I don’t have that option (I haven’t received an email from them before; they didn’t sign their email; I’m communicating in a different medium) I default to gender-neutral language whenever possible and address them by first name, risking informality over choosing the wrong title (Mr., Ms., Mrs., Dr., etc).

This is the first step of the conversation. In the past few days alone, I’ve heard or read people arguing over things like, “Jonathan van Ness identifies as non-binary, you can’t say ‘him’!” when he has gone on record as preferring he/him but being fine with she/her or they/them pronouns. It also seems like every week or so, I see another discussion of how “they” can’t be a singular pronoun, even though it has been in use that way for ages. (If you need an example, ask yourself where an unidentified person is going. Didn’t it feel natural to say, “Where are they going?”) If we start by paying attention to what others want to be called (whether that’s “Rob” versus “Robert” or “they” instead of “he” or “she”) we can move toward better understanding for everyone.

So, happy belated International Pronouns Day to all!

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