Gender and Etiquette: Uh-Oh

As you know, the traditional idea of etiquette tends to revolve around what fork to use at dinner (the outside one!) or what “white tie” means (as formal as it gets). But this is fairly useless day-to-day information.

Anne Hathaway in a backless dress on the red carpet for the Golden Globes
Seriously, I covet this. Which lends support to my theory that Anne Hathaway and I are supposed to be best friends. (Thanks to”¦ the whole internet for this.)

There aren’t many opportunities to use fifteen pieces of silverware or to wear a backless dress. (Though, someone please invite me to that party. It is a life goal of mine to wear a backless dress.)

I think we can agree that the day-to-day is changing, and to our great-grandparents, the day-to-day might even be a little bizarre. I think we can also agree that change sometimes leaves us at a loss, especially when it comes to gender and self-definition. To demonstrate, let me recount a story told to me by a friend of mine, we’ll call her Diana. Mostly because that’s her name.

“I was working at Borders and I had just shaved my head. A little boy came running up to me and asked, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ His mother was mortified. She tried to call him back, and she apologized to me. I had never been happier. That was absolutely the right thing to do. He didn’t know, so he asked. That’s what everyone should do.”

As adults, we have this idea of “politeness as silence” ingrained into us. Probably because we don’t want to look stupid, and we’ve become convinced that every question we ask will embarrass others. Mostly, we don’t want to look like we’re not omniscient. But, let’s remember, in this situation the kid had it right.

Word art of gender pronouns including lesser-known ones such as zie and hir
Who knew that such tiny words could cause such big problems? (Thanks to for this image.)

As Diana has indoctrinated in me over the four to six times I’ve heard this story, in the Trans community, self-identity is key.

Guessing is far more offensive than merely asking, and asking is actually a sign of respect. After all, you are giving the other person the right to their own gender autonomy and are deferring to their vision of themselves. And that’s not just appropriate, polite behavior, it’s awesome. And always ask in private, not in front of the whole village. The kid got away with it, but he was six. You can use a little more decorum than that, I would hope.

Some ideas on how to ask:

  • “What pronoun do you prefer?”
  • “How do you identify?”
  • Or, the best ever, “What’s your name?” Because if someone’s name is Christine or Samantha, there’s a good chance that they identify as female.

Please remember that after asking, (and if you don’t need to ask, you really shouldn’t) you should always use the correct pronoun and the name that was given to you to use. And if you mess it up? Apologize once and move on. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Nobody wants his or her differences pointed out over and over. Just be cool, man. And really, isn’t that the point of it all? Just be cool.

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By amandamarieg

Amandamarieg is a lawyer who does not work as a lawyer. She once wrote up a plan to take over the world and turned it in as a paper for a college course. She only received an A-, because she forgot that she would need tech geeks to pull off her scheme.

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