It’s becoming more commonly understood that asking about someone’s pronouns, and then using the ones they’ve given, is a good habit to get into.
There’s more to inclusive language than pronouns though.
You may have seen some version of the bathroom sign from the University of Bristol, which reads “If you’re in a public bathroom and you think a stranger’s gender does not match the sign on the door, follow these steps: 1. Don’t worry about it, they know better than you do.” or the shirt created by The Transcending Gender Project which reads “If you’re out in public and you can’t figure out a stranger’s gender, follow these steps: 1. Don’t worry about it.” These are, generally, great pieces of advice, but so many everyday interactions seem to demand gender-specific language that it isn’t always easy advice to follow. If you are cisgender (your gender identity matches the sex you were assigned at birth based on your external genitalia), it’s possible you haven’t noticed how often people interact with you and make assumptions about your gender.
Think about interactions you have during your day.
When you get coffee in the morning, the barista may say, “Have a nice day ma’am.” When you hold the door for a stranger, they might respond with “Thank you, sir.” If you go out to eat with a friend, the server may inquire “What can I get for you ladies?” When we interact with strangers, we often use gendered language as a sign of politeness. For a gender-nonconforming person, these interactions can feel extremely painful or exhilarating, depending on whether the person misgenders you or not.
When I came out as genderqueer, I cut my hair in a short masculine style. I started wearing men’s shorts and pants pretty much exclusively, bought some button-up shirts, and shifted to a very dapper presentation that felt wonderful and comfortable. This shift involved shopping trips for new things that previously weren’t in my wardrobe, and a purge of the skirts, blouses, dresses, and other items I couldn’t imagine wearing again (although I’ve since re-incorporated some of these things back into my wardrobe and present much more ambiguously).
It was a fairly big change for me, so when I shifted my presentation and strangers still called me “ma’am” or “lady,” it stung. Six years later, it’s more of an annoyance than anything. Even when I’m wearing a button with my pronouns on it, even in meetings where everyone gives their pronouns as part of introductions, I get misgendered regularly. Intentional or not, this is a microagression. In the worst case scenario, sometimes a person seems to be trying to shame me for being me and making them feel uncomfortable. Most of the time though people do it out of habit, without consciously thinking about my gender at all.
So here are some ways you can avoid making someone feel awful and be more inclusive with language when interacting with strangers:
1. Use gender-neutral terms when interacting with groups of people, regardless of whether they appear to be “ladies,” “gentlemen,” or mixed.
Depending on where you’re from, you may already say “y’all/you all” or “folks” pretty regularly. If you’re from the Midwest, like I am, “guys” might be your go-to gender-neutral option. This is problematic because it’s sexist; it privileges male as “normal” or the default and is a product of patriarchy, so I recommend trying to get out of the habit.
It might sound funny at first, but y’all will hardly notice it when it becomes just as much of a habit as saying “ladies” or “guys” once was.
2. Replace “sir” and “ma’am” with equally polite gender-inclusive words—or skip them entirely.
American English dialects don’t have a lot of commonly used singular gender-neutral words. Luckily, we can borrow a term from our friends across the pond, who use “mate” for individuals. “Friend” is also a good option if “mate” doesn’t suit your tastes.
A smile can often do the same thing that polite phrases are intended to offer, without offending anyone.
3. Use gendered words less often.
Many of us have already switched to “server” instead of “waiter” or “waitress,” “mail carrier” instead of “mailman,” “business person” instead of “businessman” or “businesswoman” particularly when talking about generic or hypothetical people. We can do this with the pronouns we choose too—we use singular “they” when we’re not sure of a person’s gender identity.
Just extend this practice to situations when you haven’t had the chance to ask someone what their pronouns are.
Is it important to the story you’re telling that the cashier was a “she” or “he”? Just because you assumed someone was a man or woman based on a snap judgment during a brief interaction doesn’t necessarily mean you’re right. It’s getting more common for people to use “they” as a pronoun for anyone they haven’t had an explicit conversation with about their preferred pronouns, and I’d encourage you to give it a try. This will make the chances of you misgendering someone much less likely, and make you more mindful of how much gender impacts the way we think and talk about the world.
For more ideas for gender-neutral language, this list from Gender Queeries is a great starting point. If you do accidentally misgender someone, here’s some advice on what to do next (and the answer isn’t make a big deal of apologizing for messing up). Your efforts to use inclusive language have more power than you may ever realize, so thanks for doing to work to be a better ally.
NOTE: This originally appeared on my old blog back in 2014 not long after I came out. I’ve made some minor edits, but wanted to share it here in the new space, since it’s still pretty relevant.