An Opportunity?

It’s awkward to feel uncomfortable in a meeting while being unable to figure out exactly why. I muddled my way through one, but I wish I had come up with a better response. Sometimes analyzing a situation and our feelings takes time.

Here’s what happened. The presenter invited us to introduce ourselves in what, for me, was a novel way: name and preferred pronouns (he, him, his, she, her, etc.). So why did I feel like I was being invited to walk with a stranger down a dark alley in a rough neighborhood?

Pronouns are little words that substitute for nouns—including names. They are used to talk about a person, not directly to a person. When names are known, pronouns are unnecessary. Talking about “Pinky’s pet gerbil” is just as easy as saying, “his pet gerbil.” The discomfort arises for two reasons.

First, this is a radically different form of introduction. Until recently, relationships have progressed in well-trodden ways. Share names, then something fairly superficial like an occupation or place of origin or residence. Later, more details are exchanged. If Pinky hits it off with Perky and a friendship begins to blossom, they will probably begin to share more intimate things—things that identify them as unique individuals. “Perky, have I ever told you how stressed I am if one of my gerbils gets sick?” By that time, they have built a relationship platform, which gives reasonable assurance that when they share something intimate it will be heard and treated with respect even if there is no agreement. Inviting people to share preferred pronouns is unnecessary because names work better anyway and because the preferred pronouns of the vast majority of people align with long-established cues (my beard gives mine away). For a minority, that form of introduction is the disclosure of something intimate—a gender identity chosen for deeply personal reasons. It felt uncomfortable to me because such sharing is intimacy without a relational platform (for the same reason, it might be uncomfortable for the person sharing too). I felt imposed upon and endangered—the second reason for the discomfort.

We probably regret forgetting a person’s name, but we can always ask, “I’m sorry, please remind me of your name”. Few people are offended. Forgetting some people’s preferred pronouns is another matter. Regrettably, many cultures have a record of treating minorities badly. Many attempts are being made these days to correct that. However, those who identify with a gender that is not genetically determined often remain sensitive to real or perceived ill-treatment. My fear was that, in the dark alley of my forgetfulness, I would hurt someone and be wrongfully perceived as disrespectful or unkind. There would not be sufficient relationship for the offended person to know that it was an unintentional mistake. Who knows how it could escalate!

So, what can we do if we find ourselves in a situation like the one that I described? One simple response would be to apologize in advance: “Hey, I just want you all to know that if I forget anyone’s pronouns, it is a mistake and not meant to be disrespectful or hurtful in any way.” We might add, “If we had the opportunity to get to know each other, I think you would find that I am a good listener and respectful of others. Unfortunately, we have not had that opportunity yet and this is a very delicate thing to be sharing so early on.”

There’s an opportunity too. We’re told to always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, but with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). So perhaps we could introduce ourselves like this: “You have invited us to share our preferred pronouns, which are markers of gender identity. For some people, that’s a delicate part of their identity, chosen for very personal reasons. So I hope you don’t mind me sharing something personal about my identity. I am a child of God. It’s not because of anything special about me; I have been adopted by Him because I trust Jesus. Please don’t think that I would ever try to judge anyone because of that or force my views on someone; those behaviors are inappropriate. However, if anyone would like to know more, I would be happy to get together with you afterwards.”

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