Listen up, people! The case for non-gendered language
There’s a lot of divisiveness in the world these days—at least in the United States, but I fear it’s spreading. In the face of so much division, we might do well to focus on what we have in common: our humanity. We are all people.
Is that enough to make a start?
Comedian Rhea Butcher put it this way in a tweet earlier this week:
“If we called everyone people…we’d have to admit that everyone is a person.” This Rhea Butcher person has a point.
Butcher was responding to the NFL player who found it funny “to hear a female talk about routes,” the patterns that football players run. Of course that “female,” Jourdan Rodrigue, is a sports reporter. It’s her job to talk about “routes.” But even if she didn’t talk football for a living, women can converse intelligently about anything we care to learn. And despite what sexist quarterbacks and hotel doormen assume, women can also be sports fans.
But Butcher is making a larger point here, and it’s one I’m surprised I haven’t given much thought to before. It’s about the divisiveness of gender.
“Women do X; men do Y.” Instead, how about:
People do X and Y.
Same set of information, but it produces an even more accurate sentence. Because we don’t make choices based on our gender; we make choices based on our passions and interests. I’m a woman baseball fan, but you can find plenty of men who’ve never watched a game in their lives.
Step into a toy store and it’s not hard to figure out the intended audience for all those pink toys. The world may want us to believe that pink is for girls, but I prefer a bluish palette—and I have some male friends who rock pastel button-downs better than anyone in the world. Yes, even the pink ones.
Why aren’t we all just “people”?
I spoke about this a while back, in a recording I made for the first World Speech Day. Instead of asking, “What’ll you girls be having?” a restaurant server could just as easily ask about “you folks” or “you people.”
It’s not easy to adopt non-gendered language, at least not if you’re used to the old way of speaking. That’s why in Sweden, they begin teaching non-gendered language in preschool. But adults learn plenty of things—when we want to.
So I invite you to spend a week noticing the pronouns you use. When you’re referring to a specific person, by all means use the pronouns that person prefers. But if you don’t need to gender something or someone, then don’t.
Start with your writing—it’s easier to revise and correct. Once you’ve gotten the hang of eliminating unnecessary gender references in print, it’ll be easier to do it when you speak. Eventually—like any new skill we learn—it will just come naturally to you.