Dear Prudence

Dear Prudence Uncensored: The Pronoun Dilemma

Every week, Danny Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss a Prudie letter. This week: asking a casual acquaintance about their preferred pronouns.

Nicole: So, I would not be asking small town people about their pronouns, likely. But a 3 y/o misgendering someone is going to be sweetly corrected and I don’t anticipate this being a problem.

Danny: yes I think the best/first thing to do here is just have a basic primer with your kid at home about this!

Nicole: Totally

Danny: “Some people are boys, some people are girls, some people are something else,” ask her questions about what she feels about being a girl, approach it from a spirit of curiosity and exploration

Nicole: Yes!!

Danny: you can also say something like “Usually people tell us if they want us to call them something different, so the best way to be polite is to let them tell you”

or “you can ask me if you’re not sure about somebody”

again, she’s three so you’ll have opportunities to be a little more complex in a few years

Nicole: I think this is very reasonable and age-appropriate

Danny: but stressing that it’s 1. totally fine to wonder and 2. better to ask you than ask strangers is the right tone to strike

Nicole: Yes!

Danny: also I think most trans/GNC people are fine handling a three-year-old if she ever does ask a kind of direct question

kids that age are pretty sweet and curious; I definitely answered a little kid’s questions for like ten minutes in Bakersfield last Christmas while I was standing outside of a hotel

Nicole: Kids are the exception to a LOT of “don’t ask people that” things. If they’re polite.

Danny: and normally I get anxious if strangers ask me questions about my appearance (shocking) but this was totally adorable and fine

Nicole: Genuine curiosity about wheelchairs, etc.

Danny: but yeah it’s also tricky because I don’t think there is a universally agreed upon etiquette when it comes to pronoun stuff

there are a lot of competing interests at play — some people want to be asked, some people don’t, often times in practice what it actually looks like is this: People who look cis/gender-conforming don’t get asked theirs, people who look trans/gender-non-confirming get asked a lot

Nicole: No, it’s an evolving process for sure.


Danny: so it can often turn into a sort of “I think you look strange, what’s your deal?” without people intending to

Nicole: YUP

Danny: and I say that not to be like “trans/non-binary etiquette is an impossible swamp, better give up without even trying because we’re all impossible to please and ready to fly off the handle at you”

but more to be like, it’s not really every going to be one-size fits all and you have to exercise your judgment, read other people’s signals, be prepared to sit with a little discomfort or uncertainty without letting them drive your actions

Nicole: And that’s a great life lesson for so many things, frankly.

Danny: so if the only chats you’re having with this cashier are of the following variety: how’s your day going, chatting about the weather, your little kid talking about what toys she’s playing with or whatever

i don’t really think it’s necessary, i think you can stick to using the cashier’s name and either avoiding pronouns or sticking with “they”

that’s not to say that defaulting to they is always the best option but i do think it’s reasonable-ish to do so here

Nicole: Yup. Completely in agreement with this.

Danny: but yeah! it’s hard, and i definitely remember when i was in that stage of “am I going to transition? IDK” feeling really frustrated by chipper pronoun requests

Nicole: No one is asking John Goodman this question.

Danny: like, for someone who is out and relatively at peace with it, it’s an easy answer, but I felt like at the time (because I never used to get asked it) what people were saying was, “You look like you’re doing something different. Will you admit it to me, or do you want me to pretend not to notice what I just told you I noticed?”

*it CAN be an easy answer

and I’d feel like I was either handing someone my guts or being put on the spot and forced to lie or disavow something

Nicole: Woof.

Danny: again, that’s not necessarily those (very nice, very well-intentioned) people’s faults

but it’s complicated!

also lots of people have gender-neutral names/don’t appear gender conforming but aren’t trans or non-binary and are super comfortable with she or him

so just be aware that there a number of possible dynamics at play, it sounds like you’re being both friendly and polite, I bet this cashier enjoys getting to talk to you and your kid, and you’re doing everything right

also! I get asked for my pronouns a lot less now, but when I do I feel a bit tricky for totally different reasons

and again, I don’t share any of this because I think other people are doing anything wrong or they need to be able to guess my internal condition

I just think it’s interesting and worth noting!

part of what’s hard about transition is that two people might do the exact same thing for totally different reasons, and it has to do with the imperfection of signaling an internal condition through external markers

Nicole: Right

Danny: like, if I get asked my pronouns now, as a pretty out trans guy with a VERY handsome, EXTREMELY patchy beard, I’ll feel like “oh, fuck, I’m not passing, what should I be doing to communicate ‘he’ more readily” (and the idea of passing is, you know, already fraught/imperfect/~problematic~ etc to begin with)

again I would like to stress that my beard is as patchy as a cabbage patch

Nicole: I love your beard!

Danny: but I have started pairing it with a lovely George Michael earring and it brings me such joy

I LOVE HER, her name is Sandra

Nicole: Hahahahahahha

Danny: do you remember that time I ate a grape at the grocery store

and it was as if I had revealed to you that I was D.B.

Nicole: I will never get over that


like now I wouldn’t care bc Jeff Bezos

Eat all the grapes you want

Danny: I mean, I wouldn’t eat more than a single grape

I wouldn’t eat, say, a banana

or if I did I would present the cashier with the peel and say “please charge me for this banana”

but I had to know if the grapes were good!!!

although I was living on the edge, eating an unwashed grape

I haven’t done it since, if that helps