Pronouns, Email, and Politicizing the Workplace
A recipe for disaster
You may have noticed people where you’re employed adding pronouns to their email signature. If you’re unsure of what I’m referring to, it’d be something like:
The incidence of this occurring where I work is slowly increasing. As it does, I wonder if it will ever be the basic expectation or even a requirement. Even if it doesn’t rise to the level of expectation, I can see trouble brewing ahead for a couple reasons. It violates some personal standards I have and it can create political tension in the workplace.
For me to place my pronouns in my bio or include them in any part of an introduction is to lie to you and to myself. It would be akin to pretending my gender, and anyone else’s for that case, is ambiguous. And it almost never is.
I have a masculine name, a masculine physique (if I do say so myself), face, and voice. There is no question: I am a man. Everybody I interact with knows I’m a man. There is no need to announce it any more than to announce that my skin is brown and I shave my head.
I know there are cases where we may not be sure the gender of the person we’re addressing. They may have an androgynous look, name, and/or voice. We have all known someone like that, and it can be uncomfortable figuring out how to address them.
In a case like that, we should absolutely look for some cues, and hopefully they will help us along the way, because they know we’re confused.
It’s similar to the issues I have with my name.
My first name is Jeremiah, but I go by “Thomas.” Now in my work email and user name it comes up as Jeremiah because that’s officially my name. Knowing that people may be confused, I let them know that I go by Thomas but I won’t jump down their throat if they call me Jeremiah. I mean, why wouldn’t that happen? It literally says so next to my picture. It’s no fault of theirs. They’re just acting rationally.
In a case where there may be some confusion as to how someone should address me, I address it. But with gender, for 99% of the population, there is no confusion. We all know what we’re looking at.
In a chapter on the differences between men and women in Human Diversity, Charles Murray shares this picture as a great example of what we all know to be true. Take a look at it. (Would you look at that?!)
Now be honest. Can you tell which is male and which is female? Yes, you can, and we all know it. It’s a fantastic example of how subtle but obvious our differences are. If someone tried to explain the differences, outside of the hair line, it would be tough. But you know, just like my kids do.
Laverne Cox, a transgender actress all dolled up and looking great, happened to pop up on our television recently. Out of nowhere, my six year old son asked me if “that was a boy or a girl.” Just casually being in a room where Laverne showed up on a screen drew his attention to something out of place.
Even if someone who is dressing in clothing traditionally for the opposite sex, regardless of what kind of fantastic makeup and accessories they’re wearing, we still know. They may look absolutely fabulous. We may all be jealous of their sense of style. But we still know what their sex/gender is.
If that’s the case for you, then absolutely let me know what pronouns you’re comfortable with! But even then, I am not obligated to play along. I probably will to be friendly, but that is still my prerogative.
But if you’re a woman or a man who is not dressing out of “the norm,” a dude with a beard named John in a suit, or a young woman with feminine features wearing a dress, there’s no need to tell us what your pronouns are. You’re not clearing up any confusion.
What you’re doing is planting an ideological flag in the ground.
The idea that gender is and only is a social construct has turned into a political statement. Simply stating that it truly is a nuanced interplay of biology and culture with evolutionary roots can get you called a bigot. It’s happened to me.
And that’s why using pronouns in work emails can be trouble.
It reminds me of the day we were all supposed to go onto Instagram and share a black square. The ritual was a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, or the organization, or both. Now of course, if it’s your Instagram, go for it. But that’s not the point.
When movements or ideas become politicized, it’s not simply about who shows allegiance, but also who doesn’t. Not sharing a black square was just as loud as sharing a black square. The same goes for pronouns in work emails.
Like I said, almost nobody is confused about the gender of people placing their pronouns in their emails. We all know already, so why announce it? Well, it’s a nice way to announce your ideology at work. It’s not a political party pin on your lapel, but it’s just about the same thing. People with pronouns in their bio did not and will not vote for President Trump.
Now what happens if and when pronouns in emails are expected and you choose not to participate? Bingo! There’s the bad guy. It’s like a Scarlet Letter non-letter. I don’t see how this could be a good idea in the workplace. Bringing people together to work on a team which is already often remote and less personally engaged, then expecting or even allowing individuals to announce their ideologies is a recipe for disaster.
I bet there are a lot of people still irritated about who did or did not outwardly support BLM in the summer of 2020. People lost friends and family members, or at least experienced some increased tension. This is not something we should promote at work and maybe something we intentionally get rid of.
It won’t be popular and many will see it as a personal attack, but there is little if anything to be gained by polarizing work spaces and allowing political statements to infiltrate our communications.
Great articulation of this problem. It would be interesting to see an article written up on the problem of “person with diabetes” rather than just diabetic.
To me it just seems like people looking for a problem to solve to be “kinder” when no problem really exists. And then demonizing people who don’t go along.