In the past few decades my name, Adrian, has become androgynous. The distinction used to be between my spelling, which was for boys and men, and “Adrienne” for girls and women. Often this distinction is maintained today, but often not. Combine the occasional confusion with what was perhaps a highish voice when I was in my twenties, I sometimes heard myself addressed by strangers on the phone as “Ms.,” “Miss” or “Mrs.,” or, of course, “Ma’am.”
If I was unlikely to meet that person, I shrugged it off. However, there were times when I needed to establish a relationship with the caller. They might be a colleague in another part of our multi-office organization or a lawyer representing an opposing party. It might be that I could expect to meet the person socially. In such cases, at some point in the conversation, I’d insert, “By the way, I’m a ‘Mr.’” They might be flustered, but only momentarily. When I’d eventually meet them, we were spared any gender awkwardness.
I think of those incidents when I encounter a signature on an email with the person’s preferred gender pronouns, e.g., “she/her/hers.”
As I understand them, there are four reasons for incorporating gender pronouns into signature blocks:
1. Specifying one’s gender avoids confusion. It isn’t just that names like mine have moved back and forth across genders, but also that many immigrants’ names are new to us English speakers and we might not recognize which gender is associated with which name.
2. Signature pronouns allow people, such as those undergoing transition, to define their own gender.
3. Pronoun signatures can be used by people who choose not to be identified according to traditional either/or gender labels, such as bisexuals and those who deem their sexuality indeterminate. The tag here would be “they/them/theirs.”
4. Others who might otherwise be comfortable with how they are identified choose “they/them/theirs” to take a stand against male-female stereotyping and signal support for cross-gender inclusion.
I hope this summary does justice to the intentions behind personal pronoun signature blocks. Several friends identify themselves through pronouns in their correspondence, and I hesitate to take issue with their genuine desire to respect all people through this practice. Nevertheless, I believe signature block pronouns are counterproductive.
Let me get one clarification out of the way. When referring to a generalized person, (e.g., “A maintenance or other worker must use the service entrance when they come to the building”). I am completely comfortable with substituting “they” for “he/she.” Even as a boy, in an era when we were all supposed to recognize that “man” or “mankind” encompassed women, I was troubled by the universality of “he/him/his” as pronouns for the experiences of both men and women.
One more clarification: this pronoun practice is for correspondence with strangers, not with friends, colleagues or others who know us at least reasonably well.
One might expect my past experience of being addressed as a woman would make me sympathetic to the goal of avoiding confusion over a person’s gender. On the contrary, I didn’t take offense. In a sly way, I thought it a compliment. Women are reputed to be better listeners and more responsive. If that’s how I came across, I was glad. With most calls, there would be no embarrassment for the caller because they’d never meet me and I didn’t correct them. If they were likely to meet me, or if our acquaintance even over the phone or by letter was likely to be extended, my polite correction and their brief embarrassment was almost always followed by amusement.
By contrast with those briefly uncomfortable moments, pronouns added to signatures in formal correspondence cry out for attention to the writer’s gender. Normally, the author of an email or letter from an insurance company, a nonprofit organization, a law firm or similar impersonal body is of little or no interest. They are a faceless bureaucrat, about as gender-neutralized as anyone could wish.
Being alerted to the author’s gender on such a letter might have me thinking, “So, a woman actually wrote something so mean,” or “See, men can be thoughtful.” I suppose advocates for gender-identifying signature blocks might see such assessments as useful provocations in the name of better understanding of the sexes, but I don’t believe this is their objective when it comes to signature blocks. For example, those who choose the “they/them/theirs” signature block surely signal a desire that gender distinctions go away.
But do they? When a person indicates that they wished to be referred to by third person plural pronouns, I’m forced to keep in mind throughout our association that even though the author’s name is Margaret or James, no gender-specific pronouns may be used when replying or referring to them. I must remember to write “they” rather than “he” or “she.” It’s an extra, distracting step. Moreover, I’m supposed to address the author as “Mx,” a form whose impersonality is alienating.
I recently received an email from a young person whose name was masculine and whose voice over the phone was also masculine. So his choice of “they/them/theirs” jarred with his manifest gender traits. I imagine myself beginning a reply to his introductory message:
Dear Mx. John Smith,
I know you want me to pretend I can’t tell you’re a guy, but all you’re doing by forcing me to remember to address you as “Mx.” is making me even more aware that, based on your name alone, it’s what you appear to be.
An NPR blog post goes so far as to urge readers to identify themselves at parties by name and gender choice. The author acknowledges that it could be awkward at first, but insists we’d get used to it. I don’t think so. If anything, if a woman introduced herself to me as “Hi, I’m Marianne. I like to be referred to as she/her/hers,” I might take it either as a flirtatious invitation or as creepy.
Gender ambiguity is hardly the only potential cause of social awkwardness. Take that moment many of us have experienced when someone who sounded one way ethnically or racially over the phone turns out in person to belong to a different ethic group or race.
To cite an example I’ve wrestled with, should disabled people save others from embarrassment by extending their signatures with “Blind,” “Deaf,” “Quadriplegic,” etc.? There have been any number of times when someone who corresponded and dealt with me over the phone was taken aback on meeting me in person and finding I was blind. But by then, they’ve come to know me, however slightly, free from the disability label. The last thing I want is to use my signature block to tell the world I define myself as disabled. I also wouldn’t want it to define me by race, religion or in any of the myriad other ways people define themselves and others. That includes my gender.
Finally, by seeking to remove any question about gender, people deny themselves the kinds of insights I gained due to the ambiguity of my name. It’s one thing to know from friends and reading that many men condescend when speaking to women, but it hit home when it happened to me. On the other hand, it said something good about the caller when they reacted warmly on being corrected.
Yes, sexual stereotyping can constrain a person’s potential. Yes, I find my stereotypes rightly challenged from time to time. And yes, I’ve been unsure if a stranger I’m talking to is a man or woman. Maybe signature block pronouns will lead to fundamental reforms, the ones that go deeper and farther than politics or legislation. Maybe even as we highlight our genders, we will somehow neutralize them.
But no, these high hopes are misguided. I really don’t want awareness of your gender or its concealment forced on my attention. When you’re a stranger, I want to think about how we can work together. Perhaps this is what signature block pronouns are ultimately meant to accomplish, but in reality, all they do is inject distraction, even complication, into communication.