Why Pronouns Are Important
Kevin Narine (he/him/his), BA, William James College
Melina Wald, PhD (she/they), Columbia University Medical Center/Gender Identity Program
WHY ARE PRONOUNS IMPORTANT?
Pronouns are important for conveying vital parts of our colorful identities. We actively use pronouns daily but may not think about their meaning in each instance. However, pronouns are essential for promoting safety, respect, and care for others.1 Thus, understanding the impact of pronouns can be an important part of how we understand ourselves and interact with others in our personal and professional lives.
Everyone has unique pronouns. Some people may use one set of pronouns (e.g., she/her/hers) whereas others may use several pronouns (e.g., she/they). It is incredibly important to avoid assumptions about someone’s pronouns based on their appearance, voice, and/or name. Additionally, pronouns can express gender identity but does not always do so. Taking a moment to check in with others about their pronouns or provide opportunities for people to share their pronouns is an effortless and important way to express respect for others and avoid making inaccurate assumptions.
There are a few considerations when using pronouns:
- Pronouns are not simply “preferred”, but necessary. The phrase “preferred pronouns” suggests that it is optional to use someone’s pronouns.
- Pronouns should not be assumed. It is acceptable to ask someone for their pronouns especially during introductions.
- Pronouns can change based on context, name changes, or a person’s gender journey.
- It can be inclusive to encourage others to share their pronouns in a group context, but it is important to not make sharing pronouns mandatory as it may be uncomfortable for some people to disclose their pronouns.
- It is appropriate to use gender inclusive terms including “everyone/all/y’all” (instead of ladies/gentlemen) “partner” (instead of boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband), “they” (instead of he/she), “folks” (instead of you guys/ladies) and “person” (instead of man/woman) in order to avoiding assuming other’s pronouns or gender identity.
- Adding your pronouns to email signatures or name tags can show respect, allyship, and increase awareness about pronouns.
- It is crucial to advocate for gender pronoun items to be added to forms, electronic medical records, and other useful documents.
HOW DO I ASK SOMEONE FOR THEIR PRONOUNS?
While it may seem uncomfortable to ask someone for their pronouns, it is crucial to not assume their pronouns. If you do not know someone’s pronouns, it is recommended to use their name instead. When you are speaking with the person, you can simply ask “what pronouns do you use?” to learn about their pronouns. You can also share your pronouns in your own introduction to model openness around gender diversity and to normalize sharing of pronouns. In clinical settings, many patients desire to have their pronouns accurately documented in electronic medical records and should have this option available.3
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF CORRECTLY USING PRONOUNS?
There are positive impacts to appropriately gendering or using pronouns for someone. The use of gender affirming language, such as appropriate names and pronouns, is associated with better mental health outcomes including reduced depression and suicide risk.4 Moreover, gender affirmative behaviors, such as asking for pronouns and consistently using those pronouns significantly increases engagement in medical care among Black transgender and gender diverse youth in the United States.5 Thus, creating a safe and affirming culture within mental health care and medical centers is an important step in ensuring that gender diverse individuals seek and remain in care.
HOW DO I RECOVER FROM MISTAKES?
Misgendering occurs when someone accidentally or intentionally uses incorrect pronouns to address someone else. Misgendering is invalidating, dismissive, and alienating for someone. Moreover, misgendering leads to psychological distress.6 We all make mistakes and it is considerate to learn from them. If you accidentally misgender someone else, it is important to quickly apologize, correct yourself, and move on. It is also recommended to not profusely apologize for the mistake because it could make the person feel at fault or obligated to comfort you. The intent of the apology (as with all apologies!) should be to acknowledge the pain you have caused them, not to provide you with relief.
It is crucial to not deliberatively misgender someone. It is harmful, offensive, and harassment to misgender another person. In clinical settings, misgendering a person can lead to distress and embarrassment in the waiting area, as well as reduce the likelihood of seeking health services again.2 Misgendering may also lead someone to feel unsafe or afraid. As an ally, it can be important to correct someone if you notice they are misgendering someone else. Always ensure that you have spoken with the person who was misgendered first to ensure you are aware of how they prefer to handle misgendering.
HOW DO CULTURES AND PRONOUNS RELATE?
It is important to acknowledge cultural differences in uses of pronouns. Some languages make space for gender neutral pronouns including Bengali and Farsi. Additionally, some Indigenous North Americans celebrate Two-Spirit folks and honor multiple pronouns. In contrast, American Sign Language does not use gender pronouns. Some cultures have pronouns that are not easily expressed in English. In the clinical context, it can be important to discuss how someone’s pronouns or gender are impacted by their cultural background and language.
RESOURCES TO LEARN MORE ABOUT PRONOUNS:
1. Brown, C., Frohard-Dourlent, H., Wood, B. A., Saewyc, E., Eisenberg, M. E., & Porta, C. M. (2020). “It makes such a difference”: An examination of how LGBTQ youth talk about personal gender pronouns. Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, 32(1), 70-80.
2. Deutsch, M. B., & Buchholz, D. (2015). Electronic health records and transgender patients—practical recommendations for the collection of gender identity data. Journal of general internal medicine, 30(6), 843-847.
3. Sequeira, G. M., Kidd, K., Coulter, R. W., Miller, E., Garofalo, R., & Ray, K. N. (2020). Affirming Transgender Youths’ Names and Pronouns in the Electronic Medical Record. JAMA pediatrics, 174(5), 501-503.
4. Russell, S. T., Pollitt, A. M., Li, G., & Grossman, A. H. (2018). Chosen name use is linked to reduced depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior among transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 63(4), 503-505.
5. McLemore, K. A. (2018). A minority stress perspective on transgender individuals’ experiences with misgendering. Stigma and Health, 3(1), 53.
6. Goldenberg, T., Jadwin-Cakmak, L., Popoff, E., Reisner, S. L., Campbell, B. A., & Harper, G. W. (2019). Stigma, gender affirmation, and primary healthcare use among Black transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 65(4), 483-490.