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Urban Etiquette

Ellen Vanstone answers your questions about the annoying behaviours, poor manners and impatient encounters that dot the days of a city dweller.

Urban Etiquette: Do I have to use someone's preferred pronoun?

In fact, isn't it a bit rude for them to ask me to change how I talk just to accommodate their radical views?

Ani Castillo

Dear Ellen,

My 22-year-old son has a friend who looks and sounds female to me, but he says she is “non-binary,” meaning not male or female, and she does not want to be called “she” or “her” anymore. Instead, I’m supposed to call her “they” or “them.” I try my best, but I find it all very confusing and often forget to use the correct pronoun, which makes my son furious. He says I’m being terribly rude and insulting, but isn’t it a bit rude to expect me to change how I talk just to accommodate someone else’s radical political views?

Confused Mom

Dear Confused Mom,

Wowza, ma’am. You have opened a giant tinderbox here, but it’s a good one, and increasingly relevant, so let’s discuss.

First, consider a similar language issue from another era. Before the term Ms. came in, men were identified as Mr., regardless of marital status, while women were identified as Mrs. or Miss.

In other words, with a simple honorific, society instantly divided women into married (off limits, i.e., sexually unavailable) or single (sexually available if young, or proven sexual reject if older).

Many chauvinists (male and female) fought the use of Ms., suspecting (correctly) that it threatened the patriarchal status quo by chipping away at how female humans overall are seen and defined. But in terms of etiquette, the rules are on the side of Ms. — that is, if you believe etiquette means treating all human beings as equal (which it does). Simply put, all humans are equally entitled to keep their marital status private in public and on paper. So the use of Ms. has rightly prevailed, and we should all use it, unless a woman insists on being called Mrs., in which case one should politely respect her wishes to be so identified.

Your non-binary pronoun question is complex, but similar. The request feels unreasonable because it doesn’t make sense to people who grew up thinking the world was male or female, period. It helps if you try to understand that “being” male or female, or neither, is not a choice or a “radical political view.” It’s a real feeling, rooted in a sense of personal identity.

But whether you understand this or not, or like it or not, the right thing to do is respect your son’s friend’s request and make an effort to use the neutral pronoun.

Don’t worry if you make mistakes — as long as you proceed in good faith and make an honest effort, they can be politely patient with, and appreciative of, broad-minded you.

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