Pronouns Mean Never Having To Say You’re Sorry

People have been goofing on my name and pronouns since I started telling people what they were almost twenty years ago.  (Let’s be real, people have been goofing on my pronouns since I was born, but that’s for another day.)  Twenty years of apologies. It’s gotten old.

At one extreme, there’s the overstrained and beleaguered nonapology. “Ugh, I’m sorry.  It’s just so hard.  You know how it is.” Yeah. I know exactly how it is. I am such a burden. Thanks for the heads up that you are not in alliance with me. If you don’t see what’s wrong here, you’re going to have to seek elsewhere, because I’m not up for it.

But then there’s another kind of unpleasantness, which is the overapology.  “Oh my God!  I’m so sorry.  I know better. Really I do. I was just [blah blah blah].  I feel terrible about it.” Which socially puts it on me to be “the voice of reason” and take down the energy:  “Oh, don’t worry about it,” “It’s OK,” and so on. Even if you should.  Even if it’s not.

I’m actually a little rattled at the moment and would like the conversation to go somewhere else even more than you would. If you’re someone I’m in with, I know you’re sorry.  If you’re not, telling me that you are can’t break through my armor enough to convince me.  You will show me more in your ability to take in what you have done and not make the next few moments about you.

And now there’s a new variant on the theme.  In twenty-four hours, I received the following:

  • A text from a friend within publishing that a mutual friend in publishing had used the wrong pronoun in a conversation with me and still felt terrible and passed on an apology
  • An email from a friend who had used the wrong pronoun about me in social media, deleted and reposted, and wanted me to know they were sorry
  • A conversation with an old friend whose sibling had used my childhood name for me and thought her sibling would stress about it less if they knew I was OK with them

Three times in 24 hours when, outside the moment of the mistake, I have been asked to take care of the emotions of cisgender people.  Nope. Done. Nope.  No ill will to any of these people individually – I like them all very much – but come on!  Two of these are instances I never even needed to know happened.  And to be honest, I didn’t even remember the first one outside the moment – I get so many pronoun slips I can’t keep a tally.  You’re not *that* special. And further, two of these are a person removed.  But someone had to let me know they felt BAD.

And yes!  You feel bad.  That’s called shame. Awesome!  We’ve gotten to a place where you see that your mistake is yours, not some special request I’m making. So what do you do?

Well, first, I suggest you do what I try to do. (And yes, I mess up on pronouns, including my own.  Enculturation starts early and runs deep.) Apologize and move on. And in fact, I’m trying to move away from the phrase, “I’m sorry,” which often comes with the expectation to accept the apology, towards the phrase, “excuse me,” which is what you say when you fart. You stunk up the air. It happens. It can’t be undone, but let’s not dwell on it, OK?

And then, I’m going to challenge you to take it one step further.  Brene Brown talks about shame being connected with silence, and the answer to shame being honesty. So what I want you to do is to talk to a cisgender person about it. And if someone comes to you with a story like that, please *don’t* go back to the trans person about it, even if they ask you to. Sit in it together. Share your feelings. Grow closer. Do the work yourselves.  And maybe as a bonus, you’ll be less likely to goof in the future, because you got to be there, instead of hiding from it.

Here it is again, in three simple steps:

  1. Say “excuse me”
  2. Move on
  3. Process your feelings with a cis person

Think of it as the modern Stop, Drop, and Roll. Good luck!

1 comment to Pronouns Mean Never Having To Say You’re Sorry

  • Thank you so much for posting this. People do have such a strong instinct to make their offenses all about them and to then try to assuage their guilt through extraordinary and bizarre means. People’s pronouns and identity are not for them to constantly justify, they are for others to embrace and learn about.

    The only way for cis people like me to learn and get our acts together is by listening. I really appreciate you educating me.

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