I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately, mostly at work, about pronouns and how learning to use they/them pronouns could be a step to making less assumptions about everyone. I shall explain!
I started to think about things in a particular way when I was asked to speak to a group of emerging leaders about a challenge I have at work because I’m LGBTQ. I wanted to talk about my challenge, but I also wanted to make it larger than me and give them some hands-on tips about what to do. My challenge was, and continues to be, that a lot about me cues people to assume I’m a woman and once the assumption is made, people don’t usually make the connection when I state my pronouns. So, what did I talk about? It went something like this:
Human brains, particularly the left half of brains, are always carrying on processes below the level of consciousness. Left brains love to take in data, assess, make assumptions based on patterns, and categorize. It saves a lot of time. Mostly. The tricky bit is the assumptions it makes. Remember, this is a subconscious process; it’s based on cultural priorities learned over our lifetimes. The brain is doing this without consulting the consciousness. No one does this on purpose so there is no shame or guilt about what’s happening. Think of it as a VERY ingrained habit.
So, your left brain is busy assessing stuff and coming to conclusions about things and then sending them over to the conscious brain all prepared and on a platter. And your conscious brain is like, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You save me so much time! I’ll just gobble this up and be on my way.” Nice. Efficient. Except when your autopilot-left-brain-let’s-just-assume-this-fits makes a wrong assumption. I’m one of those wrong assumptions.
Until recently, I had a decidedly feminine name. That’s the first piece of info Left Brain takes in. That’s usually enough. “I know where this person goes! She goes in the ‘woman’ category.” Next you might hear me. My voice has a higher pitch, so obviously Left Brain holds onto the first assumption. Then you see me. Softened facial features and a body with curves solidifies the conclusion that I’m a woman for sure.
Once good ol’ Left Brain has done all that work, I have the audacity to say, “Please use they/them pronouns for me because I’m not a woman.” Now your conscious brain is having to backpedal and try to take in what I’ve said and make sense of it in light of the information already handily provided by Left Brain. That’s work. Completely unexpected work. It’s work not a lot of people are used to or even know how to do.
Here’s where it’s important to understand this process and how it can affect your interactions with more people than just me: this is only one example of Left Brain making a wrong assumption! It happily whirrs away all day, taking in information and making assumptions. I might even describe it as wanton. Throwing caution to the wind, it serves up all kinds of information to Conscious Brain that is packaged as truth but is really just a “probably” at best. When you become aware of this process, you can begin to interrupt the well-oiled system and call into question some of the information you get from Left Brain. You can begin to make fewer assumptions about anyone you meet and even people you know.
Think about what that would be like! When you don’t make assumptions about someone, you allow them to be who they actually are. You allow them to tell their story without having to jump the hurdles of assumptions. There is space, freedom, and relief interacting with someone who is working at interrupting their assumption-making process.
Consider these two questions in the context of talking to someone who is telling you about a significant relationship in their life:
How long have you been married?
How long have you been together?
The first question assumes that a particular cultural ceremony has taken place. It assumes that a particular progression of relationship has happened. It assumes that the person values certain cultural norms, etc., etc. etc. To answer the question, the person may have to consider what is safe to talk about, how to explain their situation, assess what the questioner’s intentions are, how to navigate the assumptions.
The second question acknowledges that the person is talking about a significant relationship but doesn’t assume all of those things. It allows the person to choose what part of their story to tell and how to tell it. It signals that a broad range of experiences in relationships are acceptable.
Which would make you more comfortable?
I would encourage you to find ways to begin interrupting your autopilot Left Brain. Here are two suggestions:
- Get a little notebook. Being to notice the assumptions you make about people based on how they appear. For instance, in an urban area, a person with unwashed clothes, uncombed hair, carrying a large bag may invoke the assumption that they’re homeless. Write down those particulars. What cues did you take in that brought Left Brain to that conclusion? Then, take it one step further and note what characteristics come with that categorization for you. For some people, a homeless person will make them think of someone who needs and deserves support, something has happened in their life to have them in this situation, but they still are a person who should be respected. For some people, a homeless person will make them think that they got that way through bad choices, they should be avoided, and they should just work harder at bettering themselves. This will help you be conscious of the assumption-making process and begin to interrupt it. Then you can decide for yourself how to see this person, and whether they deserve to have all of those assumed characteristics. (Hint: they don’t!)
- Practice referring to people you don’t know with they/them pronouns. Example: you pass someone on the path in the park and you say to your friend, “His jacket is really nice!” Work on instead saying, “Their jacket is really nice!” This will work on three things (a three-‘fer!): It will give you practice using they/them pronouns; it will make you think about and interrupt the assessment process that assigns that person a gender without knowing for sure that’s who they are; and it will help you to open space for people and make fewer assumptions.
I will say that I’m preaching to myself with this. I, too, have an autopilot Left Brain that’s always working away at presenting me with assumptions. I am committed, though, to working on approaching people with fewer assumptions and looking for opportunities to change my language to give people space to tell their own stories without having to climb mental hurdles. Will you come with me?