Proper Etiquette When You’re Unsure of Someone’s Gender Identity

Over the past few years, I have messed up my share of people’s pronouns.

Folks I’ve dated. Friends from high school. People I’ve written about.

I once spent a week fretting over how to refer to a genderqueer drag king offstage in one of my pieces. Eventually I just asked him.

When trying to respect someone’s gender identity, it’s easy to overthink things. Here are a few polite solutions when you’re unsure of someone’s gender pronouns.

1. Ask.

He. She. Ze. They. The pronouns that people use to refer to themselves may seem endless to some.

So, how do you know how to talk about someone?

Easy. Just ask: “What pronouns do you use?”

This simple step can go a long way to avoid alienating someone. The advocacy organization Everyone Is Gay has some good tips if you’re puzzled over specifics.

2. Use their name.

Maybe you feel overly awkward asking people about their pronouns or met someone in passing.

Take the easy out: Use their name. And stay away from specifically gendered language.

So what if your sentences get a little more unwieldy? That’s small potatoes next to basic human decency.

Also, note that referring to a human as “it” is not appropriate, unless someone specifically requests that word. 

3. Use “they.”

The pronoun “they” is a blank slate, devoid of gendered connotations. If using someone’s name repeatedly makes you squirm, just say “they” when talking about them.

As a former copy editor, I understand fellow grammarians may balk at using “they” to refer to a single person. I used to, too, and would make all of my nouns plural instead of using the obnoxious “he or she” construction.

Over time, I relaxed. Respecting nonbinary folks is more important than upholding a rigid set of rules.

Also, keep in mind the singular “they” has been used throughout history. But don’t take my word for it; hear from The Baltimore Sun editor John E. McIntyre in this hilarious video.

4. Apologize if you mess up.

If you bungle someone’s pronouns and get called out, a simple apology will suffice.

No need to belabor the point.

Vow to do better next time and get back to that interesting topic you were discussing in the first place.

Proper etiquette when you’re unsure of someone’s gender identity comes down to awareness. Words have power and reveal deep-seated assumptions about specific people and groups. Let yours be deliberate and considerate.

In the United States, only .6 percent of the population is transgender, which includes people who are nonbinary and don’t identify exclusively as men or women. They’re disproportionately targeted with violence and discrimination at every turn.

They deserve a moment of consideration, at the very least.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill10 months ago

I'm sorry but there are only 2 genders, male & female!

Marie W
Marie W10 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Siyus C
Siyus Copetallusabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

Maureen H
Maureen Heartwoodabout a year ago

Given some of the comments, I need an article on "Proper Etiquette When You’re Sure of Someone’s Bigotry". I respect people as a matter of policy, until they personally prove themselves unworthy of it, and then - well, proof I'm not a boddhisatva, I guess. But I wonder whether a few years of being treated exclusively as they themselves would treat trans folks would be an educational experience.

Karen H
Karen Habout a year ago

Had to laugh when I read this, because I remember the SNL sketches with the gender ambiguous character "Pat" created by Julia Sweeney. Like several have said: when in doubt, ask.

Nang Hai C
Nang Hai Cabout a year ago


Melania Padilla
Melania Pabout a year ago

Thank you!

John W
John Wabout a year ago

Utter drivel

Clare O'Beara
Clare Oabout a year ago


Janis K
Janis Kabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing.