January 1, 1970
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

How to learn and respect other people’s pronouns

Alright, so your friend asked you to call them “they/them” and you don’t know what in the heck they mean by that. Well, look no further — here’s a handy how-to guide on respecting other people’s identities. This article is based on the assumption that you want to learn how to get better at using pronouns. It is not intended to convince you that you should respect who people are — that’s just common decency.

So let’s jump in. How do you know what to call someone? One of the best ways is to offer your own pronouns first. You could include them in your email signature, or say them when you introduce yourself to someone.

“Hello,” you might say. “My name is Jackie and my pronouns are she/her.”

This lets people know that you’re more likely to be accepting of their own identity. People aren’t obligated to tell you their pronouns, but sharing yours can help others feel more comfortable around you.

In English, the most common gender-neutral pronoun is “they”. Singular “they” has been used for hundreds of years to talk about people whose gender we do not know. When you check your Dominos order, it will tell you that the delivery person is on “their” way. However, “they” is not the only alternative to she and he.

Some people prefer to use neopronouns — pronouns specifically designed to convey a specific gender experience in a way that traditional pronouns cannot. Some examples include: xe/xem/xyr, ze/hir/hirs, ey/em/eir and fae/faer/faers. These pronouns are also frequently used in languages where there is not a neutral pronoun like “they”. If someone tells you that they use one of these sets of pronouns and you’re not sure how to pronounce it, just ask!

No one’s experience and identification is universal. It’s vital to pay attention and respect how people want to be understood. Gender is a unique experience and it can vary on a person-to-person basis. 

Let’s walk through an example. Someone that you know comes out as gender fluid and asks you to use she/they pronouns. They tell you that they are comfortable being called “she” and being called “they”. That’s great! You should alternate between the two: “I was talking to my friend the other day, she said she’s doing well. They’re on their way to school right now.”

There will be points where you think to yourself: “I’m doing my best, but I keep making mistakes!” That’s okay. Like with anything, it takes practice to get it right. When you make a mistake, you can take a moment to repeat to yourself the person’s name and the pronouns that they use. You could hang out with a mutual friend and practice together.

If you use the wrong pronouns, that’s okay too. You don’t need to feel defensive or make a big deal out of it. Just notice the error, correct yourself and move on with the conversation. If you trip over yourself apologizing, the other person could feel guilty and won’t feel comfortable correcting you in future.

It’s also important to be flexible. Identities are not set in stone. Your friend might ask you to use only she/her pronouns, or they/them instead. They might switch the label they use for their identity. The better you get at using the right pronouns, the easier it will be for you to switch. With that being said, different identities are not a phase and it is vital that you remember that.

Like any new skill, there’s a learning curve to using the right pronouns. For most people, it’s not something they’re used to. But the more you practice, the easier it gets.


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