Question: The Eternal Pronoun Quandary

Anon asks…

Here’s the backstory: I work at a front desk. One of our customers had an androgynous appearance–“male” body, “femme” clothes, but their voice, body language, etc. did not give me the impression that ze was trans. I didn’t ask what pronoun ze preferred, because when another coworker referred to them as “he”, ze did not protest. Should I have asked anyway?

Please post your response in the comments below.

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Posted by on March 31st, 2010 at 04:00 pm

Category: questions 22 comments »

22 Responses to “Question: The Eternal Pronoun Quandary”

  1. Jay

    Oooh… that’s a great question. I work as a customer service rep for a big box store, and everyone once in a while someone comes through who is of uncertain gender (to mine eyes, anyway). Generally, I just settle for not using any pronouns at all, beyond ‘you’ (or saying ‘you guys’, which is a pretty gender-neutral statement where I live). So I don’t know. Maybe you should have, maybe not? o.O


  2. Lilybean

    Maybe you should ask everyone.


  3. Anonymous

    It seems that until it is common form to ask all people their preferred pronoun, it will offend many people to ask them.

    Some people, regardless of how gender deviant they may seem, are not actually doing so intentionally. I now identify as pretty much androgynous. But as a teen, though I apparently looked androgynous, it was beyond my scope of understanding to identify myself as such. So I thought of myself as a girl, albeit an unusual one. I was offended when I was called “sir” or “young man” at work, but I would have probably been offended if people would have asked, too.

    This is really a catch-22. I would try to avoid gendered terms entirely, but sometimes that, too, can be obvious/awkward.


  4. Keena

    I just like using ze for most people. A lot of folks that aren’t aware of gender-neutral pronouns think you said he or she. If you blend it in enough to your conversation, nobody should really notice it.

    However, I have a habit of making weird little phrases to refer to people, like, “This kiddo over here” or “The little wiggins on your left”. I think for younger people, just calling them a kid works, too.


  5. Alex

    Use ze and hir if they are genderqueer… It’s respectful and polite. It’s redundant to ask a customer you will never see again if they have a pronoun preference, it’s not necessary information for such a superficial interaction. I’d feel uncomfortable if a stranger asked me that, I already hate interacting with the public for discomfort surrounding the perception of my gender presentation!


  6. Lyn Aven

    I’d go for the plural pronouns if you’re not sure; you’re not likely to offend anyone and they’re more widely recognized.


  7. Nicholas

    This happens to me frequently. I let people make up their minds based on their life experiences. I think it’s the most relaxed way to deal with things.

    If you’re really not sure, just use “they”, or “the customer/client”, or embellish the hell out of it “our most wonderful client here needs…” and make them smile. I personally find ze/hir-type words “too much” to ask of people, and opt for the non-gendered “they.” It makes sense to me, people are comfortable hearing it and using it, and it has been there right next to the “he’s” and “she’s” the entire time. “They’s” are wonderful people too :D


  8. Kimberley

    Personally I dont think anyone should ask. Just treat us as people the same as anyone else. It is all I wanted in the past now or in the future.

    Huggs to All.


  9. Jessica

    Don’t matter what you do, you’re going to offend somebody. Some people want to be offended. It’s like cooking. There is nothing you can cook that everybody will really like. Not even if it’s chocolate.


  10. Anonymous

    in response to jay, ‘guys’ is not gender neutral anywhere, and never really can be. the word ‘guy’ is masculine, not gender neutral. they, zi, hier, etc are gender neutral however. try and make the switch, it means a lot to folks like me, who cringe every time they are referred to as a guy. and it is disempowering to people, such as women and gender neutral folks, who don’t identify as male. referring to them as ‘guys’ ignores not only their sex in some cases, but their gender as well.


  11. Lyn Aven

    I strongly disagree with the previous comment; “guys” is totally neutral in my area. Even girls here use it to refer to groups of each other. “Guy” is masculine, but “guys” is neutral unless context says otherwise.


  12. Jay

    Agreed with Lyn, I’m afraid ~anonymous. I specified that it is gender-neutral in my area, because it is, and isn’t gender-neutal everywhere. It may seem odd, since the word itself does technically refer to males, but we use it (where I live) essentially the same way people in the southern States use ‘y’all’.

    And like Lyn said: even groups of all-(gendernormative)-girls will use it to refer to themselves/others. I see a group of girl friends – I say ‘Hi guys!’.


  13. Joel

    “Guys” is also gender neutral terminology in my area (Kansas).


  14. jean c.

    I present pretty androgynously, usually get about equal amounts of “sir”s & “ma’am”s (as long as my short hair has recently been cleanly cut). Additionally, my given firstname (Jean) is gender-ambiguous when written.

    At an airport recently, checking in, the clerk calling me up to the ticket desk looked up at me from my paperwork and said, without missing a beat, “Passenger [Lastname]?” I was delighted to be able to say, “Yes!” and step proudly forward to the counter, without feeling like I was either betraying or claiming one gender or the other as my own. No matter my gender, I could decisively identify as a “passenger”.

    I don’t know if that is something they say to everyone, in place of Mrs. or Mr.; if that airline’s (us airways) employees are specifically trained to not gender-title people who look androgynous; or if that was that particular employee’s strategy for addressing people whose gender they weren’t sure of. However it came to be, I was impressed by the directness and effectiveness of how they handled my gender-ambiguity while still speaking with respect.


  15. Lyn Aven

    @Joel: Actually, that’s the SAME area. ;) I’m from Wichita, where ya from?


  16. Anonymous

    As an Okie, I concur with “guys” as a neutral term in this part of the country. Clearly, it doesn’t work everywhere, but here in Oklahoma, “you guys” is commonly used as the second person plural that our fine language notably lacks. (In a terrible combination of Southern and Midwestern dialect, I have also heard “ya’ll guys.”)

    The most feminine women in Oklahoma would not balk at being referred to as “you guys.” I am pretty certain this is common parlance throughout the Midwest as well as other parts of the country.


  17. epinards

    I love that story Jean!!!


  18. Andrew

    “guys” may be used in a gender neutral context but not everyone is comfortable with that. Where I am from lots of folks use “guys” to refer to groups of people regardless of gender and I know some folks who are offended by it, but don’t speak up because they think people wont’ respect it or that they will find it weird.


  19. Christopher Robin

    I agree with Andrew. While “guys” is regularly used as a non-gender-specific phrase, it is still a masculine word and implies that male is the default gender. This use of “guys” is just like how the pronoun “he” is used to generically include non-males. It is common where I live (Minnesota) for “guys” to casually refer to any gender group, but the subtle implication is that everyone is male until specified otherwise, which is disempowering to non-male ID’d people.


  20. Anonymous

    While I acknowledge that “guys” as a gender neutral obviously has its origins in gender inequality, there are whole LANGUAGES where the default third person plural is the masculine. This idiomatic usage is not killing anyone with its hegemonic origins, troublesome though they may be to those of us who are cognizant of them.

    Do I think that language should be changed to defy hegemonic/monolithic biases? A resounding yes. But do I think there are more important matters than using “guys” as though it is gender neutral? Yes.

    Ultimately, you cannot refer to people you do not know with gender neutral pronouns that they might never have even heard of. That is a lot more likely to irk or offend them than common colloquialisms like “you guys.” You can always, as Nicolas suggests, go with “they,” ungrammatical though it may be (in reference to an individual).


  21. Troy

    I’m the kind of guy who almost never protests when people call me a she. Not because I am a she, but because I am afraid that they will respond badly were I to object.

    If you aren’t sure, you can always use neutral pronouns, or say something like “Hi, I’m Troy and I prefer he pronouns, what do you prefer?” That’s what I do when there’s someone I plan on actually having a conversation with someone I am not certain of there gender ID.


  22. Anonymous

    I heartily support commenter #20’s argument, and the eloquence with which they stated it.

    And yeah. I like “they” as gender-neutral — even if its roots are quote-unquote “ungrammatical,” grammar’s what you make it. Descriptive not prescriptive, etc., and “they” as singular is certainly in pretty wide use as far as I can tell.


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