Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Addendum: pronouns

Some people lament, or complain, that others won't use the pronoun of their choice to refer to them. They figure, what's the big deal? This is what I want, and it's no skin off your nose to comply with it. It's a matter of respect.

There's one problem with this: pronouns are not normally something we choose.

We go through much of life making snap judgments about the world around us. It's how we function. It's the part of our brain that uses heuristics—rules of thumb—to deal with information quickly. Sometimes, this intuitive system is wrong, but usually it's right, or at least close enough. Heuristics aren't much good at dealing with unusual or novel situations, but they work quite well for most of what we encounter on a daily basis.

When a person refers to another person as "her" or "him" or addresses a person as "sir" or "ma'am," that is generally coming from intuition. And it's an intuition about the other person's sex. The other person presents a number of clues—without any conscious effort—as to which sex they are, and the observer processes those in the blink of an eye, also without any conscious effort. A gendered term isn't about how we feel. It's about how others perceive us via the senses of sight, hearing, and smell.

Why gendered pronouns and terms? Because it's built into our brains. However primitive it might be, it's important to us whether a person is female or male, just as it is to any animal. The world is not binary with regard to gender. But there is such a thing as sexual dichotomy. No one can wish that away. It's fundamental to our species.

Some people have difficulty with sexual dichotomy and don't like the pronouns that automatically come their way. They don't feel like a "her" or a "him." They might feel the opposite. They might feel like a "they" or some variant on gender neutrality. And they want others to respect that.

Respect is good. But in this case, it is also difficult because it's counter-intuitive. And anything that's counter-intuitive slows you down and makes you work. It's not that this is a bad thing. It's just not the way we usually operate. If we always had to operate that way, we'd bog down completely. Life moves too quickly to ignore our heuristics.

If someone is a friend, we make the effort. We honor their choices and how they feel about themselves. We don't whine. We don't say how difficult it is for us. We don't make excuses. We just do as well as we can and get better at it over time. And if we can't, then maybe we and the other person are not such good friends.

Out in the wide world, it's a different story. Intuition and heuristics are still going to prevail. No one knows how you feel about yourself. No one knows what your preferences are. They will go by what they perceive. A person with thinning hair and a beard shadow who growls in a baritone voice is unlikely to hear "ma'am," regardless of how femme they dress, just as a person with a smooth face and broad hips who speaks in a gentle alto is unlikely to hear "sir," regardless of how butch they dress.

Sometimes, what a person wants is simply unreasonable.

There is one sure way to hear the gendered pronouns (and other gendered terms) that you desire—give off the clues that people expect. Make it easy for people's intuition. Be the sex that you feel you are—and that does not mean conforming to gender stereotypes.

Of course, this will not work if what you feel is not what shows, or if what you feel is something that doesn't fit with sexual dichotomy. If that's the case, you're in for an uphill battle, and it's likely that you will expend a great deal of energy fighting it. Choosing pronouns that are counter-intuitive means making other choices as well. Best wishes to you.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you've really hit on something here in a way that makes it very difficult to counter argue, by those that would.

The visual clues from perception is truly where one will understand whom they are seeing, or why you might not be seen as you would like to be.

I have a small Adam's apple still. While it gives me an uneasiness at times, it has never been a visual clue that has brought a mis-gendered appointment my way. As you say, it's about the perception and intuition which comes by viewing the whole person; not just a small part. Something that has always brought the respect I have sought.

D.

Fionnuala said...

I agree with all this... but I'm not so sure about "Make it easy for people's intuition. Be the sex that you feel you are—and that does not mean conforming to gender stereotypes."

How else to make it easy for people, other than conforming to gender stereotypes? Such stereotypes are the cues people use to make those unconsious decisions, if you will, about the person they're dealing with.

Myself, I do conform to gender stereotypes, not so much to make it easier for other people, but because it's comfortable for me.

Sagebrush said...

@Fionnuala

I admit that was a late addition. I think what I was trying to say is that conforming to gender stereotypes is not in itself a way to get people to use the right pronouns and terms. I think it has to come from inside you (and from out of your mouth). I know people born male-bodied who have changed sex, aren't stereotypically feminine, yet are still clearly female. But if you're gender conforming because it's right for you, all the easier.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me or does the concept of "gender" sterotypes contradict an opinion made earlier in the post?

Why gendered pronouns and terms? Because it's built into our brains. However primitive it might be, it's important to us whether a person is female or male, just as it is to any animal. The world is not binary with regard to gender. But there is such a thing as sexual dichotomy. No one can wish that away. It's fundamental to our species.

if, as the paragraph observes, gender is not binary, not clearly defined, then how could one use "gender" to define/categorize into steroytypes? ( and after all, isn't that the actual point of a sterotype?)

Might not "gender" be the wrong word in this context?

Maybe pronouns should be (are) categorized by sex as is later implied?

Sex (as we all know), being the physical.

My point; it's gont nothing to do with behaviour or "expression", as you said BE the SEX and you will be addressed correctly.

and again the conflation of terms creeps in!

Sagebrush said...

I thought about that before I published the piece. I think about everything.

My use of the word gender with regard to pronouns was the grammatical use.

I certainly hope I have not contributed to any conflation of gender and sex! That would be counter to the intention of this blog.

Plymouth A said...

There's certainly truth to everything you have said here, but the analysis does seem to be limited to the English language. While it is true that we seem to be biologically programmed to recognize sexual dimorphism, it does not follow that we are programmed to translate that into linguistic forms such as titles and pronouns. Languages with a great variety of levels of gendered speech exist, including many with no gendered pronouns. There are also languages that are far more gendered than English as well. An MTF friend of mine has spoke about how upsetting it is to her to speak with her mother, whose native language is Polish and who is unfortunately not on board with her true gender, in Polish - the experience is to be misgendered not just with the occasional use of a pronoun or name, but with Every Single Word because Polish is one of those languages where nouns and adjectives get different suffixes to reflect gender (I don't know the details of how this works, only what she has told me about it).

It is certainly the case that the language one learns creates changes in the brain and having learned gendered pronouns it is hard to unlearn them. So, yes, as we learn a language the language connection to sex DOES become "built into our brains" as you say. But we do have the power to change it, especially if we continue raising new generations with a greater exposure to gender neutral language so that their brains form these structures differently.

Just from my own personal experience, I was never taught to address people as "Sir" or "Ma'am". I know what those words mean and know what people mean when they use them, but my brain is not programmed to reach for those words when I address a stranger. So when I meet someone I'll just say "How are you today?" instead of "How are you today, Sir?" as someone else who received different programming might. I do feel like this is both regional and generational - in the south of the US it is super rare to meet anyone who doesn't have the "sir/ma'am" programming. Where I live in Northern CA I do encounter it but it's more likely to come from older folks. Younger people are more likely to just say "How are you today?" like I would and I think this is part of a shift both to less gender but also to less formality and personally I am in favor of both.