Image by Alex Kacha
The holidays are a great time to talk about creating gender neutral conversation. With the festivities often including family members of varying generations, social circles, identities, and experiences, all groups can benefit from making their daily language gender neutral or gender appropriate. Whether you have a family member with a new gender identity, or are just trying to keep to peace between a bi-partisan household, we can all benefit from a little communication adjustment.
Gender neutral language is more than avoiding bias to sex or social gender. It is vital in a world with so many gender expressions and fluid natural of gender itself. This can be a hard concept to grasp when first introduced, especially if you don’t have experience with genders past the binary of male and female or with people whose gender identity doesn’t match the one they were assigned at birth. The truth is that our day to day conversation is loaded with many subtle, and not so subtle, ways that support patriarchal and harmful hierarchies.
Remember that changing your language or expecting the change from others can take time. A lot of the language we use day to day is deeply rooted in habits that have been formed over time. It’s important to remember that making mistakes while adjusting your conversation to gender neutral is ok. So is addressing when a mistake has been made by someone. As long as the common goal is respect and compassion, try not to harbor any bad feelings during these transitions.
Engaging someone with the pronouns of their gender (or lack of) shows respect as well as compassion. You may have heard the term ‘preferred pronoun’ used when engaging with someone, perhaps they want to be referred to as ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘they’, or the gender neutral ‘ze’. Using the term ‘preferred pronoun’ isn’t recommended as it implies that you can pick or choose to engage with these pronouns. Pronouns are mandatory to this person’s identity and using the correct one isn’t optional. Imagine if someone started referring to you as a ‘she’ if you identify as a ‘he’. This would be insulting and degrading.
But what happens if you are unsure of someone’s gender identity? Maybe you are unsure of what gender they are presenting physically or aware there has be an adjustment in their identity but you’re unsure in what way. The simplest way to navigate this situation would be to use a gender neutral pronoun like ‘they’ until you are informed, either by a friend of the situation or the person themselves. If you find yourself in the situation of needing to ask someone what gender pronouns they go by, do so in a respectful and unassuming nature. A simple question like “What gender pronouns do you prefer?” would be ideal. Better yet, to demonstrate an inclusive environment, consider asking people to indicate their pronouns when being introduced or around the dinner table.
Pronoun use within a group setting is also where male dominated terms tend to be a default option for some. The term ‘guys’ or ‘dudes’ are great examples of this. Replace gender loaded group term with ‘folks’, ‘friends’, ‘you all’, ‘people’ or ‘everyone’.
Spotlighting, Diminutivisation and Perspective
Spotlighting occurs when the use of an adjective draws attention to a role adoption that challenges a gender role. Examples of this would be “male nurse” and “female doctor”. By having to state the gender of the person within the role, it assumes that it is not expected or typical for the to have that role.
Diminutivisation is where roles and names are formed by adding lower-status and/or affectionate suffixes to titles and names. For example, “actress” vs “actor” or “waitress” vs ‘waiter”.
There are also restrictive names and titles which can be neutralised. Examples of these would be fireman (try firefighter), freshman (try first year student), chairman (try chair or chairperson), manpower (try workforce or team), man-made (try artificial or synthetic), and shopgirl (try salesperson). This could also be in phrasing that assumes a male exclusive perspective like ‘employees and their wives’. This could be easily adjusted to ‘employees and their partners’.
Insults are the most common ways that sexiest and discriminatory languauge is included in our conversation. It would be nice to live in a world where insults are unnecessary, however sometimes they slip out, especially with difficult family members during the holidays. If you’re going to call someone a name, even in jest, be aware if your comment in more loaded than intended.
Notice if any of the phrases you use are degrading to any gender. An example would be ‘to throw like a girl’ or ‘act like a pussy’. On the flip side, an insult can be degrading to the person’s gender if they are not following a harmful stereotype. This is often expressed in toxic masculine expression like ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘man up’, or ‘grow some balls’. Remember, gender is not a qualifier for any characteristics and there is no such thing as doing something ‘like a man’ or ‘like a woman’. By avoiding these terms, you’ll not only be able to cut out unnecessary sexism, but maybe be able to explain the issue at hand more accurately, hopefully avoiding further conflict. Communicating that someone’s actions are cowardly maybe more constructive than a harmful insult.
Creating gender neutral conversation can be a difficult and sometimes painful thing. But it can also be an enlightening thing. Noticing the habits within your conversation and how they are prolonging harmful stereotypes can be an eye opening and transformative experience. All of us have felt the sting of pain that inappropriate language can cause and we can all benefit from the self reflection.