Work Email Signature Etiquette: Genderfeels Edition
June 8, 2019 8:47 PM   Subscribe

My workplace is launching an initiative encouraging everyone to add their pronouns to their email signatures. Many people had already taken the initiative, as this has been an optional field on the email sig template for a while, but it's becoming a formal addition, per our style guide. This is being handled in a thoughtful and sensitive way, and they are taking care to explain the concept thoroughly, and getting employee buy-in, and that is all great! Except: the prospect of actively claiming a specific set of pronouns in my workplace is freaking me out. What do?

I have already done a whole awkward workplace thing of switching from my legal name to my preferred and gender-neutral name. This was an exceptionally chill process -- really, it was only awkward because I made it awkward (and didn't feel confident just providing my preferred name in the first place). I have no reason to think that there would be overt repercussions or weirdness if I started using my personally-preferred they/their pronouns. But as an AFAB person whose general look could be described as "apathy femme with occasional masc aspirations" I definitely pass as a cis woman, and I have been using she/her during my employment here because it just felt easier and safer, and tbh I will probably never stop wearing the occasional dress despite theoretically preferring a more masculine look because the way my legs look in pants just makes me feel kinda dysphoric and sad, while flowy, more stereotypically-femme things let me pretend I'm a gender-neutral wizard in billowing robes? So I don't know how people would perceive my preference for "they" given my physical appearance.

Pronouns actually tend not to come up much during my workday, so I don't really feel actively misgendered now -- at the very least, I can mostly just not think about it much at work. The prospect of having she/her on my email sig sparks a dysphoria that I don't otherwise feel -- having to claim female pronouns feels somehow sad and wrong to me. But going with they/their seems too scary, and going with she/they seems like it would confuse people, and possibly upset or irritate anyone who thought I was doing it for posturing ally-type reasons, and would probably just lead to people defaulting to "she" anyhow. (Plus I'd still have to actively identify as preferring "she" every time I'm sending a dang email. Which I don't!) I honestly just want to... not, with the pronouns. But I think I will have to make a choice soon, and I don't know how to choose.

Though the anxiety is pretty much all coming from me, here, it is worth adding the caveat that the work folks I have encountered all go with she/her or he/him and I have not yet met anyone else going with they/their.
posted by halation to Work & Money (24 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I will tell you what my friends told me when I was tearing myself in half with anxiety about whether leaving my in-flux pronoun situation off of my professional Twitter made me a Bad Queer:

The whole point of this exercise of publicly stating pronouns is to create a safe and welcoming atmosphere. If you aren't ready to put they/them in your work email signature, you don't have to!

If anyone asks you about it you can have a conversation directly with that person which is shaped by your comfort level and relationship with them, or what you're up for on a given day. And honestly, other queer people may very well read between the lines anyway, and will understand that a lack of pronouns in your signature implies that you're still figuring something out about how you want to present yourself at work.

Transition is a messy process for many many people -- be as kind to yourself here as you would be to a friend in a similar situation.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:00 PM on June 8, 2019 [21 favorites]

As long as encouraging does not really mean enforcing, I would think you could opt out. My company did something similar, but it’s opt in. We were encouraged with a couple emails, but as far as I know, no one followed up after with those who didn’t participate.

If someone were to say, “Hey, we really want everyone to do this, won’t you put your pronouns in your sig, too?”, could you say, “I think this is a great program, and I do support it, but for personal reasons, I’d rather not participate at this time.”?

I mean, forcing someone to do this is akin to forcing people to come out at work. It’s so personal, and potentially triggering, and sometimes unsafe! I really hope no one, even if well-meaning, forces you to do this before you’re ready.
posted by greermahoney at 9:08 PM on June 8, 2019 [27 favorites]

In my experience, workplace policies on email signatures may go so far as to say things like 'required' without achieving 100% compliance. The people who don't follow the policy don't say why--could be forgetfulness, could be laziness, could be they don't like the template, could be they have feelings about their job title, etc.--but I haven't seen a consequence to it. I get that putting your pronouns out there is a sign of solidarity and acceptance, but if you drag your heels on this and put what you like when you like, I don't think people are going to make the wrong assumption about it. In the event your manager asks about it, you could make a decision then or explain in private how it makes you feel, and I suspect everything would be fine.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:10 PM on June 8, 2019

There has been a shift in moderated disussions I've been involved with from asking everyone their preferred pronoun to making sure there is space for everyone to have the opportunity to give their preferred pronoun.

This is why. You don't have to put anything.

That is to say "but it's becoming a formal addition, per our style guide" and "This is being handled in a thoughtful and sensitive way" are probably mutually exclusive unless the style guide is very careful to say that they want everyone to have the option to do so.

It's my unscientific personal opinion that somewhere around 75% of people putting their preferred pronoun would make me feel most safe. That way doing or not doing so isn't a big deal either way.
posted by lab.beetle at 9:14 PM on June 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm cis. I put pronouns in my email signature because I want to indicate that I understand that gender identity and gender expression are different, and I want to indicate that I am open to be considered a safe person to talk to if someone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum needs support. I recognize that encouraging pronouns can make vulnerable people feel unsafe, and I 100% support the right of vulnerable people to answer the question in whatever way feels safest to them, even if it's not their true answer, or not to answer the question at all. I would urge you to do whatever feels safest right now. You can always change it later.
posted by lazuli at 9:15 PM on June 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

and possibly upset or irritate anyone who thought I was doing it for posturing ally-type reasons

I agree you don't need to feel like you definitely need to do this, but there are a lot of people who aren't in that group who would put down she/they, and anybody who gets upset or irritated about it without actually knowing how you identify is an asshole. When I put those down, I expect them to be respected as much as anybody else's, even if what they represent is a much less affirmative gender identity than a lot of people seem to have. The whole point of stating them is that you shouldn't be going based on how somebody passes. I know that doesn't prevent anybody from judging, but like--sometimes it helps me at least to remember that the problem isn't with my identity, it's with anybody who hasn't gotten the memo that this is my call.

But I do agree that she/they will lead to people defaulting to the first. They/she is also an option that I think might better convey that the former is preferred even if the latter is acceptable? But. If you aren't sure, I probably just wouldn't, and if anybody talks about that to third parties, they're the ones handling this badly. If they ask you, you can make the call about what to say on an individual basis, which at least for me I think would be easier. YMMV, of course, which is as it should be.
posted by Sequence at 9:21 PM on June 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

I would opt out for now if you are able. In my experience, well-meaning cis people are the ones who will have issues with that but other queer people, as Narrative Priorities says, will get that there might be some complicated feelings there (especially if you tend to express in any sort of GNC way). So don't worry that you're being a "bad queer." Of course, opting out means that people will just default to she/her anyway. So really, there no perfect answers, but I'm sure you knew that already!

BTW, I'm going through my own Gender Process at the moment and pronoun declarations have become extremely stressful. Especially given that I still look very much like what people think a a cis woman looks like (long hair, curvy figure, etc.). So I feel you. Just give yourself the space you need and don't let this force you into declaring anything for yourself that you're not ready for.
posted by the sockening at 9:56 PM on June 8, 2019 [7 favorites]

Oh, and if well-meaning cis hetero people DO call you out on it, just say something like "oh yeah, I gotta get on that" and then "forget." Or if you're bolder, "I'd rather not." But I'd go with the more passive absent-minded route, personally.
posted by the sockening at 9:58 PM on June 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

I hear you.

I would just leave it out of your signature. Hopefully the intent behind adding a pronoun preference statement to the official style guide is just to provide a standard format for those that do want to include it, and not to require it for everyone. If anyone pushes you about it, depending on the context I would either say roughly what you did here—that you appreciate the positive intent behind the idea but you prefer not to participate—or "oh, huh, I guess I haven't had a chance to update it".

If your company really is trying to be sensitive and inclusive it might be worth talking to whoever is leading the change about how this could unintentionally be putting some employees in an uncomfortable situation, but it's totally up to you if you want to take that on.
posted by 4rtemis at 10:15 PM on June 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

How do you feel about the idea of saying "she or they" pronouns and use both options?
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:31 PM on June 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Everyone is spot on about being exactly as out as you want to be at work and ignoring this stupid directive until pushed. I wanted to add that 1) I have listed my pronouns as “first name / first name’s” for a queer thing, although that sounds like it might freak out your workplace. 2) a whole lot of folks selected she/they on that same list, and which got used depended on personal knowledge of that person and how they talked about their identity and other people’s identities. You’re using a chosen, gender-neutral name, some folks may be savvy enough to start using “they”. It is completely up to you if that prospect sounds good or not and try not to give any fucks about how coworkers read your gender or about being a “bad queer.” You’re doing great, your company is awkwardly trying to catch up to your particular flavor of great.
posted by momus_window at 11:14 PM on June 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

This requirement is clearly meant well and aims to be supportive and inclusive and progressive, but i think it is actually terribly misguided: they are insisting everybody disclose their gender identity to everybody else, which is a big mistake. That's for everybody to disclose at their own leisure.

The whole point is that not everybody fits into boxes, and we can't all define ourselves with a pronoun that fits. I have a feeling that whomever is responsible for it would want to know the real impact of it, so they could improve it to actually meet its goal.

Could you get a message about your discomfort about this, anonymously, to the people/person responsible for this? They have a blind spot that needs fixing. If you're not comfortable I'd say nothing, and not participate.

Your gender identity is yours. Mine is mine! The first part of respecting that completely is in understanding that our feelings about our gender are ours, and ours alone, to share when we feel we want others to know.

Thank you for asking this question and for the insight it provides.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:20 AM on June 9, 2019 [19 favorites]

I'm in a similar she/they position and not currently out at work in any meaningful way. If it makes YOU the most comfortable do it. Anyone who thinks whatever needs to ask you, because this is such an incredibly personal thing and allies being well meaning allies isn't you. If someone is confused that is OK. Because right now most if your coworkers have no idea they are getting your pronouns wrong. If it fixes some of it, that is better at least in my opinion.

I was really sad when I find out about the ally (prefered pronoun + they) thing, because it's really the best way I have to express my actual identity and so I chose to use it anyway.The whole point of this initiative is to build a a space and recognition is so that nonbinary people feel respected and welcome. If saying it will make you (this initiative is after all, about you!) More welcome do it.

Of course this is a complicated process and take time. I don't think you taking your time (or briefly explaining your hesitancy ) will cause any push back on the part of your employer.

Good luck and take gentle care
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:42 AM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree with other folks here that it's misguided for your workplace to require this and pushing back is an option. (I've always presented as a cis woman and used "she/her" pronouns, but ALL of that is out of convenience rather than identification, and I'd also be uncomfortable with declaring my pronouns.)

That said, I think you're overestimating other people's likely responses if you decide to put "they/ them." Most of them probably won't notice. Others will and see it as interesting information and may or may not remember to use them for you. A couple people you're close to MIGHT ask you about it. So if you feel like you have to do it, I don't think it's going to be as bad as you fear.
posted by metasarah at 4:44 AM on June 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I identify with this so much I almost feel compelled to check for a message from my own work amping up the "encouragement" to add pronouns. I don't know what might help in this scenario but I wanted to publicly say you're not alone in having these feelings. And in my experience, being misgendered hurts way worse when one thinks that people should know, like say after one has gone through a ton of fraught emotional processing just to comply with an e-mail standard, and it turns out everyone still makes binary assumptions based on physical appearance/voice, and that one would have to launch a whole big and probably continuous self-outing campaign to actually be recognized consistently.

(On preview: that wasn't supposed to be a direct response to metasarah's comment, which I didn't see until just now, but it's basically the flip side of "most of them probably won't notice.")
posted by teremala at 4:54 AM on June 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm also they/them but not out about this at work, despite a name change that went well.

I wonder whether just letting some time pass might help resolve this for you. If the public messaging is NB inclusive, then it's possible that your colleagues' familiarity and comfort with the concepts will improve over time. They will become more aware, and maybe have low key small group conversations about it that you can take part in without outing yourself just yet. Maybe you get comfortable enough to out yourself to a couple of people and see how it goes.

Seems like this initiative might change the situation for you, over time, in which case it's done its job!

Also you might consider, if at some point you choose to come out, how many other NB folks might breathe a sigh of relief and immediately follow suit....
posted by quacks like a duck at 6:00 AM on June 9, 2019

I feel you exactly and precisely, and I freeze up when asked for my pronouns (and flatly refuse to list them on paper.) If anyone pushes me on it, I just say "It's complicated and I can't boil it down to a fixed choice right now, 'she/her' is fine and 'they/them' doesn't offend me. 'He/him' is incorrect." This is way too long an explanation to fit in a sig field or on a name badge, and so I don't. I kind of don't care if this is acceptable to people given the current state of gender politics in various organizations, because it's where I am and I'm way, way past lying about this sort of thing to make other people feel better.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:45 AM on June 9, 2019 [12 favorites]

I am a 50 something white heterosexual male so I am not qualified to discuss pronouns, but I am qualified to discuss fighting a bureaucracy however well intentioned it is.

I would not hesitate to ignore this request/suggestion/requirement. What are the risks of ignoring it? I am quite sure they won't fill it out for you, they cannot fire you over this, and if they try to badger you about it, they are themselves walking a fine line of harassment. They may say, "But you have to." several times, but smile and say nothing. If it is HR doing the insisting explain to them why this is not a good idea however well intended they may be.

You are and should be in control of your life and how you are identified. If you need verbal muscle to advocate your case with the company, I am your volunteer.
posted by AugustWest at 9:55 AM on June 9, 2019

AugustWest, I'm a 50-something white man too (though I'm intersex, and trans, and pansexual, and my gender identity is not actually binary, but whatever, we are demographic-mates), so I'm stepping in to give you a friendly "collection."

What you've just said here (I would not hesitate to ignore this request and If you need verbal muscle to advocate your case with the company, I am your volunteer) is well-intentioned, and it's good that you wish to be supportive. I for one appreciate that intent!

But here's the thing. Of course you would not hesitate to ignore a bureaucratic demand that you come out, because there would be no negative consequences for you. Now, you may very well understand that being told "Everyone come out now!" is reasonably received with a great deal more anxiety by people who are actually faced with the challenge of choosing a fixed pronoun and declaring it to everyone when that pronoun isn't the one people are defaulting to for you. But you didn't say that, you just said, basically, "Stop fussing, there are no real risks, they can't fire you and their power to force you is minimal." That comes across as dismissive. halation never claimed a fear of being fired. And yes, that is a blessing to be counted that many trans folks do not share, but there is more to quality of life and worklife than just not being fired for being trans. halation raises the issues of complicating working relationships and of trying to negotiate a situation in which being misgendered out of ignorance feels more tolerable than being misgendered after declaring a pronoun preference other than "she." Your comment comes across as dismissing that concern, though I think it's probable it just didn't occur to you as an issue, because as you say, you're a cis straight man and you haven't been forced by life to think about what it would feel like to be in a situation like halation's. So, my advice would be in the future, should you want to post to show you support someone who's a member of a marginalized group that you don't belong to and who is dealing with issues related to that marginalization, is just to say something like, "Sorry you're dealing with this, that sounds hard," unless you have some very specific technical knowledge you have to share (like, "I work in HR and here are some suggestions for what works when seeking to avoid a well-intentioned but problematic HR directive"). Otherwise you run the risk, as here, of coming across as saying, "Doesn't look like much of a problem to me."

The other thing you say, about offering to be "verbal muscle" for halation, is another example of a well-intentioned statement that actually can make a person feel worse. This is an example of "white knighting": the offer to step in an deal with an adversary on behalf of a marginalized person who has not asked for this kind of help. I understand the impulse--I've felt it myself. It's always well-intentioned. But the message it sends is that you are more competent to deal with a person's problem than they are. Here's why that's often counterproductive: (1) instead of empowering a person to deal with a difficult situation, it reinforces the idea they lack the power to do that; and (2) the belief of the white knight that they could easily fix the situation for the person experiencing trouble is often wrong. Being unaware of a lot of things due to privileged ignorance, the white knight's actions might very well actually make things worse if they actually did try to step in and be the "muscle."

So, my advice about offers of "muscle" are that it is absolutely a good thing to do if a marginalized person says, "Hey, someone with privilege here, can you please intercede for me and use your greater institutional power on my behalf?" But otherwise, saying "Look, stop flailing, I can handle this for you" very often does a lot more harm than good.

I hope that came across as instructive without being harsh!

(Oh, and halation, my empathies--sending supportive vibes.)
posted by DrMew at 10:59 AM on June 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

I just want to thank you for asking this question, because I am in a similar boat and have even been thinking about posting this question myself - it's been helpful to read other people's input on the matter. The option of just not putting anything is certainly a reasonable one, but personally I actually would like to specify my pronouns if I can figure out a way of doing so without it feeling wrong for me. FWIW, I'm leaning very strongly towards putting down "she/they" (or possibly "they/she" thanks to Sequence's comment). It's honestly the most right fit for me right now - "she/her" pronouns are probably going to come most immediately to most people based on how I look (not feminine, but AFAB) and don't offend me, though I think I would prefer gender neutral pronouns.

Anyway, I just wanted to chime in with what I think I'm going to go with, as someone else in a similar position. If it reads like posturing allyship to anybody, so be it - I would hope that anybody who cared enough to form an opinion would bother to get my take on it, as I would LOVE to be able to remind someone that "she/they" might actually be meaningful.
posted by DingoMutt at 6:05 PM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

FWIW, I don’t read multiple pronouns as posturing allyship (and even when it is, I have a hard time seeing the harm—in the worst case they learn how being misgendered feels, in the best case they learn something new about themselves).

I do give priority to “they” when someone includes it, whether it comes first or second, because odds are that person already hears quite enough of the other pronoun.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 7:29 PM on June 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

oh jeez i really want to thank everyone for being so supportive and kind after i just kind of barfed feelings everywhere because i extremely felt like A Terrible Queer and now i do not feel alone <3

Part of the reason I felt thrown is that the guidance in our style guide expressly mentions "she/they" as an example of a thing to probably not do with your pronouns -- but the replies here have helped me realise that, actually, this may indicate the people putting together the style guide have perhaps not thought through the implications of what they are asking and how they are asking it. (And I do have the impression that the people handling this roll-out are, themselves, likely cis, and maybe don't have the best handle on how this directive is going to feel to those who are not.)

I think I am going to have an opportunity to speak with someone involved in this roll-out in the coming weeks, because we have an all-hands meeting scheduled, and thanks to everyone here, I think I feel brave enough to mention my concerns about the way this is being packaged at that meeting! And I also feel that -- for me, right now -- "they/she" feels like a good compromise. It feels vulnerable and weird, especially since this is the first "real" job I have had in a long time (the kind of job where they give you a chair, as it were [but also literally, because in my adult working life I have mostly... not had a chair, and now I have my own chair, and desk, AND DENTAL COVERAGE]), and I feel kinda insecure for various reasons, and I do really genuinely love my colleagues and our mission and I'm super-scared about fucking it up.

But I'm also recognising that part of why I am freaked out is that I've never had a position where I've even felt remotely secure enough to consider even asking for "they" -- and I already have colleagues here who naturally default to "they" when gender is unclear and mostly do refer to people by name-not-pronoun in a natural and affirming way -- and now this opportunity has materialised like a dang unicorn stepping out of the forest and nuzzling me. And maybe I can do this thing? And, aaaaaaaaa.

So I just wanted to say: thank you all.
posted by halation at 8:37 PM on June 9, 2019 [12 favorites]

I just want to say thank you for posting this question! I struggle a bit when dealing with this as well. I feel really happy to live in a world where people now ask me what's my pronoun instead of assuming, and where there is a norm of announcing pronouns with introductions, but at the same time, I feel super uncomfortable answering the question and almost never ID my pronoun when going around in a group of people doing so and do not include a pronoun in my signature line. I feel like there's a whole long essay question answer to this pronoun question for me that I haven't fully explored myself let alone do I feel ready to share it with my coworkers in an email subject line!

So I just want to say thanks for sharing this question - I think there are whole range of ways that non-binary, trans, gender nonconforming and other people feel about this, and I wish you the best and also, Rooting for you and pulling for you!
posted by latkes at 9:52 PM on June 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

> the guidance in our style guide expressly mentions "she/they" as an example of a thing to probably not do with your pronouns -- but the replies here have helped me realise that, actually, this may indicate the people putting together the style guide have perhaps not thought through the implications of what they are asking and how they are asking it.

I would agree with this, and also agree that she/they (or similar mixed variant) actually sounds about perfect for your situation. Go with that. If you want to proactively discuss the guidelines with someone involved in the roll-out, that's great, but also don't feel like you HAVE to explain your gender identity further than just supplying your pronouns.
posted by desuetude at 9:07 AM on June 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

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