During an unexpected conversation among four people who were meeting for the first time, I was presented with multiple reactions to the pronoun dilemma that now confronts us. We were each attending a Harvard North Shore alumni lunch and were at one end of the picnic-style table. I include here the genders and approximate ages of each of us, though not their real names (except for me.) Across the table from me was Joe, 85 years old, who initiated the dialogue among us. To my right, at the end of the table was Sam, a retired English professor, about 65. I am Carole, aged 75. To my left sat Susan, about 65.
Joe was commiserating the fact that there are not enough people with technical skills in today’s work force.
Joe: “There’s just not enough guys to do the work.”
I interrupted: “Did you mean to say ‘people’?”
Joe continued: “No, there’s not enough guys to do this kind of work.”
I responded: “You know, women can do this work, too, not just ‘guys.'”
Joe answered me: “You want me to be careful about how I use these words. I’m too old to be bothered with that.”
Me, again: “You’re not too old and it matters!”
I then proceeded to recount the story of being turned down for a job forty years ago and being told that the reason was, they wanted to hire a man. So, am I particularly sensitive to male-gender defaults? Yes, I am.
Joe continued with his story, sticking with ‘guys.’ During the next pause in the conversation, Sam turned to me, “Can I assume that you don’t accept ‘guys’ as being gender neutral? The reason I’m asking is that my family frequently discusses this topic, because we value gender-neutrality.”
I told him that his assumption was accurate and, in response to his next question, that he could quote me. I loved it that it was a continuing family topic for him.
Then, Susan joined our conversation. She lamented the lack of a gender-neutral word for adult offspring. We have sons and daughters and also, kids or children, each far more verbally comfortable than ‘offspring.’ Susan has one offspring, born a male, who is transgender, not to a female, but rather as non-binary. Susan’s dilemma is referencing this person as offspring, wanting another word to use, though it doesn’t exist. These were not problems to be solved today. However, I felt relative satisfaction, simply knowing that three of the four of us recognized the predicament.
Earlier that week, another related situation presented itself. During our first zoom meeting of about twenty people from around the world with plans to meet for multiple sessions, we were invited to introduce ourselves and our preferred pronouns. One person with a traditional woman’s name, Sally, said that she did not want ever to be referred to with any pronoun. You may be able to see the problem: In my previous sentence, in order to respect Sally’s wishes, I would have needed to say, “Sally said that Sally did not want ever to be referred to with any pronoun.” That second ‘Sally’ is awkward and avoided only with constant deliberation.
At any rate, despite our best efforts and multiple apologies, we were not successful in avoiding Sally’s pronouns and she dropped out of our group.
Fairly recently, I considered the goal to be simply remembering, then using, a person’s preferred pronouns, despite my personal reticence to using ‘they’ when referring to an individual or using ‘she’ when referring to someone who looks like a man. However, I AM overcoming my desire to employ conventional English usage.
I have some awareness of the profound effect on people of having even one other person showing respect for them. I don’t ever want to be that person who knowingly was disrespectful of another’s changing or emerging self-awareness.
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