Let go of binary thinking
Today, I routinely include my pronouns when introducing myself in my workshops, and I don’t find it notable when a participant or colleague uses “they/them.” But I remember a time, years ago, when these norms weren’t part of my experience. I was leading a small focus group for a client as part of a workplace cultural assessment. Someone walked in, I looked up and I couldn’t immediately place this person’s gender identity.
I could feel the discomfort race through my body, almost a panic, as my brain tried to classify them. They signed in on the attendee list. I peered at the name. Sam. Samantha? Samuel?
Now my heart was racing. This was the first time I faced a question of how to address or refer to a participant. What was the best way to handle it? I didn’t want to offend or embarrass them.
I was stewing in this discomfort as other participants entered and sat down. I tried to take a step back, talking to myself. Okay, I am feeling a sense of discomfort. That is coming from something in my brain—it wants to assign a category, as it always does, and it’s failing. Now what?
Then I asked myself: why does this category matter right now? In other words, do I really need to know this person’s gender identity? Would knowing affect our interaction? If this person were in front of me in the grocery store, I wouldn’t give it much of a thought. Is it different in this setting? After all, it was a focus group. If gender was a part of what this person wanted to share about their workplace experience, it would emerge during the focus group.
The bottom line was I didn’t really need to know. As soon as I realized that, the internal panic subsided. I just used the person’s name.
While my brain and I have become more accustomed to a less rigid insistence on a gender binary, I know this is a source of anxiety for many people. This situation comes up in workshops frequently. People ask me, “If you can’t tell, shouldn’t you ask a person how they identify?”
There isn’t one right answer for everyone. Context is important and treating the person with respect is paramount. I don’t think there can be a ruder phrase than “What are you?” If you are engaging in a meaningful conversation and building a relationship with someone, then sharing your pronouns and asking what pronouns they use is a good idea. If you need to refer to someone with a pronoun and you don’t know what they use, go with “they” until they tell you otherwise.
But if it’s just to satisfy your curiosity, you probably don’t need to know. You may be experiencing your brain straining to fit someone into a box. And you’re better off thinking outside the box, and letting go of binary thinking altogether.