Thursday, September 16, 2021
In the case of personal identity, I am drawn to default pronouns that don’t assume others’ gender. Instead of assuming someone’s gender identity based on how they look or dress or act, it is more appropriate to refer to them as “they” until I know better. And whenever possible, it is important to create early opportunities to learn their chosen pronouns, which has become standard practice in academic and other settings.
Starting with the inclusive default “they” is less likely to cause offense than using harmful stereotypes to guess at someone’s pronouns. In grade school, one of my children was advised to adopt a similar strategy to address female teachers as “Ms.” until the teacher said that they prefer “Miss” or “Mrs.” Non-identification is a much less costly default than misidentification.
Some people harp on how difficult it is to make this kind of linguistic change. But broadly adopting the singular “they” can actually reduce a speaker’s cognitive load. Years ago, my parents told me they liked “Ms.” because they no longer had to presume whether a woman was married or not. Calling people “they” by default similarly relieves the speaker of having to guess at someone’s gender. More importantly, it has the advantage of reducing gender-related assumptions that listeners might make. And it has the crucial benefit of more respectfully addressing people with nonbinary identities. Just as all-gender bathrooms make life easier for transgender people, using the singular “they” default, until told otherwise, affirms linguistic space in the classroom for people who do not exclusively identify as men or women.