Keywords: tools of doubt, communication, social courtesy, gender neutral pronouns, suicide prevention
Do you get annoyed when someone corrects your pronunciation? If so, why? Correcting your pronunciation is a simple example of starting from doubt. Am I saying things properly? If not, then I can change what I do. I’m amazed at how often I find I’m not pronouncing words properly. (A couple of examples: I used to pronounce “diaspora” with emphasis on the first and third syllables. I used to pronounce both the u and i as separate syllables in “ennui.”) When in doubt, I use https://howjsay.com.
What about people’s names? Have you ever made an effort to pronounce someone’s name properly? Two mathematician’s names that are often mispronounced are Euler and Ramanujan. It seems like a simple courtesy and, in professional settings, it can be in your own self-interest to properly pronounce names. Teaching is a good example of where this can be an issue. I remember teaching one class where, when looking through the roster, I saw the name “Dung.” Instead of attempting to pronounce it, I asked the student how to. (The D is pronounced as Y. How does it happen that conversion of words between writing systems can make what seems like such a blatant error?) This illustrates a very basic approach to doubt – and social courtesy: When in doubt, ask!
Beyond pronunciation is whether or not you call people by the name of their choice. In grade school it seems common for children to make up nicknames or purposely mispronounce other people’s names. Unfortunately, and uncourteously, some adults continue to do so. I grew up being called “Chuck” or “Chuckie.” It never really bothered me and there is some argument for the family doing so since I had a grandfather and a cousin that went by “Charlie.” But when I moved away to college I started introducing myself as “Charles.” Perhaps there was some teenage rebellion in there, but primarily I just decided to call myself by what was on my birth certificate. Somewhat interestingly, it appears that the use of “Charles,” rather than the various nickname versions of it, has become much more common since when I was a child. I was sitting in a public hot tub a few decades ago with three or four other people. I don’t remember how it came up, but one of the people said they felt that “Charles” was too formal. It was both funny and poignant that there were three of us in the hot tub that went by “Charles”. It is still not uncommon for me to introduce myself as “Charles” and then have the person use a related nickname. I usually point out the discrepancy; mostly based on the fact that if you refer to me as “Chuck”, then other people won’t know who you’re talking about. (Words are about communication.) BdiJ doesn’t always correct people about their name depending on how transitory the relationship is – do what works for you. It is also not unusual for people (at any age) to want to change their preferred moniker. I had a friend do this in their 40’s, yet we had a mutual friend that absolutely refused to use this new name. Childhood family nicknames perhaps raise a sticky wicket. Do you insist that your parents or other close relatives change what they call you? Do you, as a close relative, make the effort to do so? My answer is: discuss it, come to an agreement, and don’t get upset or embarrassed if there are relapses.
Before reading further, I ask that you seriously consider the question: Isn’t it simple courtesy (and a communication best practice) to refer to people the way they want to be referred to?
I think this simple courtesy extends to the use of pronouns – regardless of whether or not there are more than two genders. (I’m convinced there are enough scientific results to support gender as a spectrum. I might write another blog on this, but if you want to research the debate, a starting point is “The Science of Gender and Science: Pinker vs. Spelke, a Debate.” And here’s a discussion of biological sex vs. gender.) In case you haven’t heard, there is a push for the use of gender neutral pronouns (and a smaller movement for an expansion beyond trinary gender pronouns.) Of note is that Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2019 is “they” as used as a singular pronoun. A consequence of this push for gender neutral pronouns is the push to include your preferred pronouns when you introduce yourself; common examples are: she/her, he/him, and they/them.
I have to admit I still struggle with implementing this. I even wrote something that I’m not likely to publish when I first came across the use of “they” in the singular. My main thought was that there should be a better option. This seemed like too much of an in-your-face usurpation of a common word. I still wish there were a better option, but I’ve come to accept that this is a very good option – maybe even the best option. First, I think it is courteous to acknowledge people’s right to determine what they are called. Second, “they” is an existing word that people know and use. Third, words morph their meaning and usage quite regularly. Fourth, sometimes an in-you-face approach is needed to get people’s attention. So, why not?
Something that helped me get past my gut reaction to the use of “they” in the singular was a science fiction story I read in the Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine. The main character used they/them pronouns (not all characters did). The narrative style used a lot of pronouns and their various forms (I have to admit there are some weird-feeling forms.) By the end of the story the use of “they” as singular was much more comfortable to me. Reading this story also made me realize that a character’s gender is rarely relevant to a story – even in regards to romantic or sexual relationships. It really is a question of normalizing usage. People can get used to it if they are exposed often enough.
Having presented the courtesy argument, here is BdiJ’s argument for the use of nonbinary pronouns: If their use prevents or aids a child (or adult) from committing suicide or developing life time mental health issues, it’s worth it. If you don’t know, in general suicides are increasing. This includes among teens. Certainly this isn’t the only reason for suicides and there isn’t a well understood reason for the recent increases, but every little bit helps.
When in doubt, choose courtesy and compassion.