How to Correct People’s Pronoun and Name Slip-Ups
One of the most important life lessons that everyone needs to learn is that you can’t control other people, you can only control your reactions to them. This can be immensely frustrating when you encounter a situation in which someone is using the wrong pronouns or name for you, be it a close family member or friend, an acquaintance, or a complete stranger. This lack of control over other people’s behavior can be tough, particularly if you’re in a situation in which you’re stealth and a particularly forgetful or disrespectful person seems determined to out you. However, recall that you can control how you respond to people and keep these tips in mind:
1. The people around you who always get your pronouns/name right are your greatest allies. Not only can they less awkwardly correct the person who is slipping up, but they can demonstrate your correct pronouns/name so that other people fall in line. Conformity is generally the rule for group interactions, and if most people are calling you “he” or your correct name, other people will *usually* follow suit.
2. If someone is messing up on pronouns and they aren’t a complete stranger, take them aside when you get the chance and let them know what pronouns you prefer. It’s best not to correct people in front of others, or to do it right in the middle of a conversation. Keep your tone casual and say something like, “Hey, I don’t know if you heard, but I actually go by ___/X pronouns. Just so you know for future reference” or “I’ve noticed you’ve been calling me ___/Y pronouns, I really prefer ___/X pronouns.” Try not to sound accusatory or angry, even if you are (if you can help it). You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, after all.
3. If a complete stranger that you probably won’t encounter again is messing up on your pronouns, try to gauge the situation before saying anything. Did anyone else notice? Was the person really referring to you? It’s easy to get touchy about these things, and I’ve actually thought someone was calling me “ma’am” when they really said “man”. Assume the best because most cisgender people assume the best, it’s only when you’re used to people messing up that you would really pay attention to these details. If no one noticed, it’s best to let it go. If you think other people noticed, though, or you feel you need to say something, it’s best to make it into a joke. “Did you think I was a girl? Yeah, I get that a lot, I clearly need to cut my hair!” Something like that.
4. To get the message out and avoid people from your past calling you your old name or the wrong pronouns, consider posting a note on facebook or sending out a mass email explaining your name and pronouns preferences and how important they are to you. I did this, and I still have people from High School who accidentally call me my old name when they run into me (and, actually, recently had someone from HS who called me “Zak” and “she” to my mother…quite interesting). Luckily, though, they are in the minority, and usually correct themselves. If you notice a lot of people in your life slipping up on your name and pronouns despite the fact that you’ve explained everything to them, you might want to send out another mass email, letter, or some other form of written communication that:
1) acknowledges the difficulty of changing their ways or remembering, 2) reiterates your pronoun and name preference, 3) explains the reasons why it is hurtful, dangerous, or otherwise when they mess up on pronouns (because they could out you and you’re stealth, etc), and 4) expresses your appreciation that they have been trying (even if it doesn’t seem like they have been).
5. If people just don’t seem to be able to get it, send them some reading material. Here’s a great article geared toward cispeople about the importance of using a person’s preferred pronouns, and another on Trans* Etiquette for Non-Trans* People by Matt Kailey that could also be helpful.
It’s important to know the difference between someone who is messing up on pronouns because they don’t care or don’t regard your transition or identity as legitimate and someone who just can’t seem to remember but is genuinely trying. For the first few months, you should give the people in the latter group a break and give them some time to start getting things right. For the people in the former group, time may or may not help. Time, mixed with several reminders and possibly several different people correcting them, is probably more likely to help.
Don’t underestimate the power of a well-worded letter or article explaining why it’s important to you for people to get it right. Especially if you’re young or just starting your transition, some people may not take it seriously or want to expend the effort to change their behavior. You can’t control this, but you can give them information that can help them see why it’s upsetting or damaging your relationship with them because of their failure to respect your identity.
In the end, you may do and say everything right and still have a few people who keep screwing up. This isn’t your fault, and unfortunately there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Just remember that whoever keeps messing up will feel quite awkward or silly persisting in calling you “she” when everyone else is calling you “he”…particularly if one day you have a beard.