“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?”
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!