Tips on training yourself to change pronouns for someone you care about (or anyone really)

microsuedemouse asked:

“Somebody I love very, very much has made the change to ‘they’ pronouns in the last few months and I can’t seem to learn it fast enough. I’m finally learning to get it right when I write it down, but in casual conversation when I’m not thinking about it the wrong pronouns slip out constantly. I know it’s hurting them a lot and I desperately want to stop. Do you have any tips on learning to train oneself into using the right pronouns?”

Hi microsuedemouse!

Thank you for your brave question! First of all, I just want to say that your loved one is lucky to have someone who is willing to reach out to a stranger for advice, even if sometimes pronouns are hard.

I want to start off by sharing my wise friend’s observation the other day about how pronoun changes affect communities, friends and family members. Basically, we don’t spend much time talking about ourselves in the third person whereas others talk about us all the time. So a new pronoun may actually be more of a shift in practice for others than for a particular gender-neutral pronoun user. Of course, when we are public about our pronoun preference people might regard us differently or prejudicially (at best) but the basic everyday life changes might be felt more by others struggling with language. After all, to me I’m still Lee but I’m now ‘them’ to everyone else. All this is to say that I hear you, and that is one of the reasons why I started this blog.

Your situation is unique, so take what I say with a grain of salt. My tips are in the realm of practice and being mindful i.e., not getting caught up in the flow of a conversation when we can become automatic. This is where trouble lurks in the pronoun change department, and not only there. This is where innate or familiar assumptions unintentionally rule our speech and actions. Witty repartee? Uh oh. Careful one-on-one chat? Probably a better chance of not messing up. Here is what I suggest:

1) Meet up with a friend you share in common with your loved one and practice. Reminisce about times spent together and otherwise talk about them. Exposure makes things much easier.

2) It would also be helpful to practice pausing before you respond to someone else, in any conversation, regardless of why.

3) When you are around people who aren’t your loved one, practice. Use they to refer to a single person, or try to refer to people with names only, etc. You can strike up conversations at the bus stop or at a tea party or wherever you feel comfortable and make this a little project. How long can you go in a conversation without using or needing to use a gendered pronoun? Can you notice when other people use gendered pronouns? How do people react to singular they?

4) Once you have some conscious practice and experimentation under your belt, do a self-audit. When do you make mistakes, or what kinds of structures (questions, off-the-cuff remarks, descriptions) catch you up? How can you remind yourself to be mindful? What are some situations in your life where you need to refer consistently to your loved one in the third person when they’re around? Can you prepare for these in advance, or get ready to use the pausing or conscious listening you’ve practiced?

MOST IMPORTANTLY, try not to worry about seeming fake, preoccupied or overly self-conscious while you are still working on the pronoun change. I feel like your loved one, if they know and feel your support, can probably understand that you need to be a bit stilted or weird as you learn. I personally don’t believe we can expect people to be perfect overnight. That takes a particular set of skills, which we need to develop. Chances are you might have these already but haven’t thought about migrating them over to the gender side of things.

I hope that helps, and keep asking questions!

Lee

28 comments

    1. Could I just suggest omitting the word ‘preferred’ 🙂 – they’re just someones pronouns. Not their preferred ones as though its optional. Feels like its only something we say when it comes to trans people.

      Liked by 1 person

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  2. Thank you so much for this article and blog. Even as someone who has been questioning gender in regard to myself recently, I still struggle with consistently using the correct pronouns with other nonbinary people in my life because using “he” and “she” and nothing else is still so ingrained into my vocabulary. It’s nice to find a source of advice on the subject that is neither overly judgemental or transphobic.

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    1. You are most welcome, Aleah! Thank you for your comment and for visiting!

      ~Lee

      From: They Is My Pronoun Reply-To: Date: Monday, January 29, 2018 at 9:42 AM To: Subject: [They Is My Pronoun] Comment: “Tips on training yourself to change pronouns for someone you care about (or anyone really)”

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    2. I’ve been having trouble consistently using my younger child’s pronouns (they/them…), not that they mind, they just correct me very quietly and we go on. We have lots of discussions about gender/sexuality and terms of categorization, so it is a very open relationship. When I mentioned my lack of consistency to my older daughter (who uses she/they pronouns) they said that a big open secret in the LGBTQIA community is how often they themselves get each others’ pronouns wrong. And to chill.
      I appreciate Lee’s point that when the overall support and love is visible, all parties can understand that adopting change can take time.
      (By the way that is the only sense in which I support “gradualism” – set the standards and the expectations to the humanist, equitable, just ideals now, but allow for time (with legal guardrails) for those standards to be fully implemented and adopted.)

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  3. I teach in higher education and have had many great conversations with my transgender students about retraining my brain and my mouth on using the pronoun and name they prefer. Here’s the issue – when I use the incorrect pronoun for someone in the classroom, I hear it immediately and quickly correct my mistake. However often before I can correct myself a student or two or three jumps in and loudly says “they”. I am instantly embarrassed and think damn I screwed up again. Ive asked a couple of students privately to please give me a chance to correct myself. Its how I learn. I explained I feel shamed when corrected that way. The response was “well imagine how we feel”
    Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In response to Candace Lavin: Yes, the classroom situation is difficult. I’ve asked in small settings for that self-correction leeway and can’t remember when it has been refused. But in an undergraduate class, specially in the social sciences, even if you get that leeway from a few students, you may be exposed to some degree of posing from others.

      You could try an experiment where you reverse the tables – make-up some random pronouns (trer for people who wear pants and skir for people who wear skirts), or perhaps make it even more abstract and removed from the very personal use of pronouns, e.g. rotate the names of common easily identifiable classroom objects, insist that your students use the new terms, and ask them to see how long it takes them to adopt the new terms.

      You could also try explaining what I think is Lee’s deepest point: that one very rarely refers to oneself in the third person in direct speech, so that change which is deep but easy for oneself can be difficult for others.

      This is also a very European language centric point. Ask them to research gendered pronouns in other languages. I’ll give just one example: In English, one would say “his key” of “her key” with a gendered pronoun for the possessor – the possessive pronoun. In Hindi, the pronoun in that context is the “possessed” pronoun, based on the gender of the possession, so “uski chaabi” for “their key”, since chaabi (key) is feminine gender and “uska telephone” since telephone is masculine gender. Please check what I’ve said with a linguist or language specialist.

      It isn’t just you, Learning Science tells us that we don’t learn by just parroting corrections and certainly not in a situation where we feel shamed, generally we learn best when we consciously engage our cognitive processes.

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      1. Do you happen to have a link to the scientific data that supports the idea that changing our langugage with respect for pronouns can be tricky and takes time. It really requires a great deal of effort, intention, energy, and persistence and is not easy. I’ve been visiting a friend of 30 years for a few days and “they” are already out of patience when I use the wrong pronoun unintentionally in an offguarded conversation. “They” implied that if I make the mistake again, the relationship will be cancelled. I’ve known “them” for 30 years.

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  4. Hi Lee, thank you for this insight: that one very rarely refers to oneself in the third person in direct speech, so that change which is deep but easy for oneself can be difficult for others.

    It gave my children and I food for thought.

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