Honoring preferred pronouns doesn’t have to be about empathy.

Honoring preferred pronouns doesn’t have to be about empathy.

They’re as essential to a person’s identity — and essential to our interactions with them — as their name.

August 20th, 2021 at 11:13 am EDT

Some good-natured people will only begrudgingly memorize others’ pronouns. The “at first glance” shortcut of intuiting, they’ll bypass not out of virtue, but out of an unwillingness to cast themselves to a stubborn or heel-digging outgroup. It’s work, though, they privately lament. 

Still more will do so for outright, political belief in the importance of the practice, as a middle finger to intolerance as they see it. It’s right, they reason. 

But where our trajectory for language typically, eventually lands is with much simpler thrust, with genuine acceptance just preceding the ground: receiving pronouns as identifying words for another will become just as normal as receiving any other name as a signifier. 

There’s no nicety, here. No politics. Neither needs invocation. When living with, working beside, or loving another person, a spectrum from acquaintanceship to soulmates, we already have the basic societal practice of sharing names as signifiers. We want the ability to speak about one another, and reference one another, even, in their absence.

Pronouns are another measure in the song. They allow for polysymphony to appear in our language. How mundane and one-note discussions about others would be were we so limited in our language that we had to repeat whole names over and over again.

This process — this isn’t strange. This is language. We need words to signify the complexities of who and what exist in our world. Listen to a language you don’t know being spoken and know the implacable sounds are merely other versions of yours. We grunt like the animals we are, and we grunt in subtle ways. Thankfully, we can do a lot with the bagpipe we call lungs, and the harp we call vocal chords. The more subtleties you can effectuate — the larger the lexicon — the readier and more capable you are of listening to the song of your world and performing your solo within it.

What poor musicians some of us are, though, content to play “Hot-cross Buns” on their recorders, ad infinitum. Their unwillingness to receive another’s pronouns as information is a reactive, hyper-political move, a temper tantrum similar to criticizing the literate grazing college campuses.

Post-hoc, feigned rationales arrive only after critics have judged the practice of sharing pronouns. Suddenly everyone is concerned about the well-being of others’ kids. Suddenly evidence-based parenting and healthcare, critics say, cause damage to those kids. Suddenly only the stubborn and unrelenting like themselves render genuine aid. 

They’ll cite few if any studies to support their claims, spitting in the face of the greater field of psychiatry — which very much embraces gender fluidity for objective reasons the American Psychiatric Association has combed over in research, and for a billion subjective reasons, too, that practicing therapists and physicians have earmarked as anecdotes originating within their office walls. 

Perhaps most lazily, critics will bemoan how difficult it is to live-check their speech for someone, ignoring, of course, that they already brave the process regularly, for names.   

Receiving pronouns when offered differs from forcing all to offer them by rule. Some might not know how to answer, yet. Some in a new environment might not want any spotlight on the practice. Why? Well, we haven’t normalized any of this yet. We still see the act almost uniquely as a political statement about inclusivity.

A pronoun set need not always be for courtesy. It’s as needful as any other set of words: it’s accurate. Check your reason for taking on the microbyte, or for refusing. Don’t catastrophize about the space and effort, and don’t heartily pat yourself on the back just yet. Pained empathy is not the ultimate state. The othering across the gender spectrum will remain real until the entire endeavor is as normal as learning any word in our shared world. 


Ignoring more signifiers for life and language, to render all less specifically, less accurately.

Remembering more signifiers for life and language, to render all more specifically, more accurately.