Creating Safety in Sharing Pronouns

pronouns Oct 20, 2021

By Kathleen J (She/Her)


Over the past year, I have witnessed an encouraging trend of workshop participants asking questions about the logistics of sharing pronouns. I’m finding most participants are now committed to sharing their pronouns and creating ways for others to share with them. Rather than spending time convincing people of the importance in sharing our own pronouns, and avoiding assumptions about others, I find myself discussing thoughtful, nuanced concerns. It is my hope that in this post I can address some common areas in which we could create safety in asking about pronouns.

While we recommend folks share their pronouns to create safer spaces, we also have to be aware that for some people, sharing is not a safe experience, and won’t be until all environments can be assumed safer up front. Right now, folks still have to proactively protect themselves and wait for demonstrated safer practices. I want to honour those complexities and validate however a person chooses to navigate keeping themselves safe.

First, avoid the use of phrasing like “preferred pronouns.” Until recently, asking for “preferred pronouns” was considered best practice for many forms and other communications. Now, we recommend that you simply drop the word “preferred.” Many people have let us know that using the correct pronouns is not a preference. The pronouns we share are not simply a preference, or something that would be nice if used; respecting pronouns is demonstrating a baseline respect for a person’s identity-and is not optional. You may need to go back and make this small correction to intake forms, signatures, and charting, depending on your sector. Dropping the “preferred” will be well worth your effort in terms of fostering positive community relations though.

Second, whenever we ask pronouns, we should have already shared ours’ first. I would recommend a statement saying something along the lines of, “We don’t assume anyone’s pronouns or identity in this space, so we always share and ask.” Just providing some further context that hints you are safer to share with. When asking for someone’s pronouns, I recommend the following phrasing, “What pronouns would you like me to use?” This way we are not asking for someone’s identity; rather, the pronouns they would feel comfortable with at this time or in this context. Hopefully this can lessen the pressure a bit if someone isn’t ready to share that their pronouns might be different than what others would often assume. They can share whatever is most comfortable to use in that moment.

Third, we can emphasize that our organization understands our sense of identity can change and evolve over time, and we are open to making updates to documentation at any time. Create opportunities for flexibility and fluidity. For example, be clear that people can update their pronouns on signatures, name tags, signage, contact/phone lists, and business cards as needed. Make multiple name tags available if needed or perhaps separate pronoun buttons available. This might be especially helpful for gender fluid folks. Sometimes figuring out the best supports can take some creativity- and that’s ok! Be sure to provide lots of options and empower people to choose what works for them.

Normalize regularly checking in with pronouns, rather than doing it once, and then someone still has to essentially come out or disclose changes. We can make it a regular habit to go around meetings and say, “I’m using she/her pronouns today.” A word of caution, avoid asking people if their pronouns are “still the same?” This can feel like you might not have believed them before, and for some people brings up the hurt of being told they were “just in a phase.” We can let folks know we generally keep checking in about pronouns unless they want us to use the same until they tell us otherwise.

Fourth, provide opportunities for reflection and choice in terms of how someone wants to handle questions of pronouns. Anyone whose pronouns align with what others often assume can likely feel fairly safe in sharing. But some folks deserve and need the time to figure out how they want to answer; how they think presenting and being in your organization will be safest for them. I reflect on consent and trauma-informed principles in how we go about giving people warning and time to decide how to respond. I would strongly encourage you to be transparent about asking pronouns before contacting anyone directly. You can outline a rationale (“we don’t assume”) and give a heads up that if you are contacted you will be asked “What pronouns would you like us to use?”

Fifth, post confidentiality policy and let those you are serving know your confidentiality policy extends to aspects of sexual orientation and gender identity. Do not assume that folks are completely out in all settings, with all people, or that they use the same name and pronouns in all places. Folks often have to gauge which people, teams, and environments are safe to be out in. It’s a good idea to check in respectfully. For example, we can ask “Do you want me to use the same name and pronouns in all settings? If I leave a voicemail/mail a letter/send an e-mail, how should I address you?” We can also respectfully ask similar questions on intake forms.

Sixth, when members of our team question the need for sharing pronouns, our focus should be on educating those who are resistant because they don’t understand, and ensuring our culture is truly safer for folks to share their pronouns. If your organization is actively creating safety, and team members see others following through on your principles, it is much more likely that everyone will feel safe to share when you ask.

Sharing pronouns is a great step for organizations, but it must go hand-in-hand with meaningful action to create the kind of environment in which everyone can be guaranteed respect and nobody has to wonder if they will experience discrimination. At minimum, specific protections against homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination based on gender identity and expression, need to exist and be enforced in an organization that asks members to share pronouns. Sharing those protections and values before asking anyone their pronouns will go a long way in helping them to feel comfortable disclosing.