Who gets to dictate new speech?

Pronoun annunciation really only a minoritized habit

Fashion can be a funny thing. Some people seem able to spot style trends and are the earliest adopters of what is new. Others wait until they see influential people around them get into something before joining the bandwagon. Then others like to stick to what they are used to and stay in their comfort zone.

This may sound as though I am talking about clothing, accessories or body grooming, but in fact I am referring to the fashion of words, of language, of linguistic convention.

Anyone who has received more than a few emails or attended seminars, symposia or colloquia at U of M will likely have noticed that some of the people involved like to include a statement along the lines of, “my pronouns are…”

I distinctly say “some” because there are people who do not include the statement in their written communication, their verbal interactions nor in any wearing of clip-on buttons or decals that provide their pronouns.

Freedom of speech or thought, while voiced by many of us as fundamental concepts of the broadest application when we discuss them as abstract concepts, seem to be put into much narrower practice when they are applied to topics that one disagrees with.

The cleavage between what some people want for their freedom of speech and how to express themselves and how they apparently want others to express their thoughts and speech makes me think of an emerging topic in the community: the habit of giving one’s pronouns when there was no particular need or desire to do it previously.

Of the many workshops and speaker presentations I have attended in the last year, one that was held in fall 2023 featured people who were all previously unknown to me. During the introductions, out of 13 people, only one individual said, “my pronouns are…” As it happened, the person’s first choice of nominative pronoun matched what I guessed it was.

While this low uptake may evoke feelings of righteous indignation from those who are true believers in pronoun annunciation, do we really want to suggest that 12 out of 13, or 92 per cent of people must be prejudiced, haters or otherwise in need of re-education simply because the habit of bringing attention to their pronouns does not resonate with them?

In the past year I have heard an instructor in the nursing program talk of how she encourages her students in their practicum placements to always to give their pronouns to their clients upon their first introduction. The fact that there is a clear asymmetrical relationship between an instructor and student means that the “encouragement” could be interpreted as a requirement in these situations, even as it may not be a practice anywhere else in a student’s life as a good citizen.

Some readers may consider this to be progressive, entirely positive and something that should be adopted across all educational, vocational, employment and public interactions. I cannot agree with certainty on this and think the academic community should amass more data to show a new practice has an overwhelmingly positive impact before dictating to the individual conscience as to speech, a fundamental freedom.

I am not without guidance on this opinion. I once had a conversation with a registered nurse who worked in a setting where data from every patient was collected that included race/ethnicity and Indigenous ancestry. This nurse believed that in some instances it created ambiguity or mistrust in the delivery of services as certain patients wondered why it should matter.

They were confused that the service provider would draw attention to a particular aspect in the conversation and if they were now going to be treated differently after such apparent attention to something that you don’t think is a factor in receiving service.

When I reflect on this, I cannot help but feel that there are people who don’t want to spend every day having to tell other people what their gender is, when out, for instance, participating in hobbies or sports, wearing certain colours of clothing, or by virtue of myriad other reasons that ironically reinforce outmoded stereotypes of gender.

I am not against someone with lived experience seeking to make a smoother, more comfortable path in the public exchanges that inevitably occur. What I do express caution toward is the possibility that some self-appointed arbiters may feel they can dictate this new trend to everyone — a surely spurious social engineering at that.

Right now, it seems to me that a minoritized habit is being elevated into a valourized perspective which potentially could turn into a quasi-disciplinary policy and practice that results in the lesser-committed feeling defensive and othered for their own honest, meaningful — and up to now, acceptable — ways of dialogue.

Like it or not, the reality is that the hearts and minds of people here in the university and in the community at large have not been won over to introductory personal pronoun declarations.