On being courteous

A few weeks back, two of my mutual friends were talking about gender identity. The term ‘transgender’ is also very commonly used. Now, I don’t consider myself an authority on this topic, but I had read about it long before a friend of mine came out as transgender. Therefore, I was interested to hear what they were talking about.

These two friends were discussing the topic and, as I joined the conversation, it turned out that they were talking about it because one friend, a father of three, has a son who was assigned the female gender at birth.

I think most people I know are aware that the topic of transgender exists, but do we really know anything at all? One question that the other friend posed was “So… she.. he feels she is a boy? .. Do you say he or she?”. The father replied: “You should say him and he. He was born in the wrong body.” The other then courteously used he and him as they talked about the topic some more.

The boy in question has chosen a new name, but is struggling in school with teachers who are refusing to use the correct pronoun. The conversation continued about the changes and challenges the family is encountering. And the creative ways in which they deal with these. The father shared how he still slips up when he talks about his son in the past tense. “Because I have that old image.. and then I tend to slip up. We have a jar for it, and we have to put a euro in there every time we slip up.”

Learning from the transgender community

Language is a sensitive thing. Much, much more than people realize. All the things you don’t say are also part of the words you are uttering. And language is not just a tool for describing our world, ourselves and other people. It also shapes them.

‘All things are defined by names. Change the name, and you change the thing.’

Terry Pratchett

During the conversation between these two mutual friends about gender identity, I felt the urge to also pitch in on the question about using pronouns. What I answered is what I learned from reading on forums of the transgender community. There are, as I understand it, three basic rules.

  • Call the person by their chosen pronouns
  • Call the person by their chosen name, never by their old name (‘deadnaming)
  • Apologize if you slip up and make a genuine effort to use the correct pronouns and name

In forums, members will sometimes have a signature that asks people to use certain pronouns, or start their posts with the pronouns they prefer. Members will take care to use the correct pronouns for others.

Basically, it is an appeal to think in a certain way, to change your mind. And yes, that is very uncomfortable. However, it’s worth trying.

Language, when used wrongly, can cause profound harm. Words are a way to reach directly into someone else’s brain and fire neurons that the other person may not want to have fired. Even the words you don’t use, for example someone not using the old name anymore, but not using the person’s new name either. It can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience. This is a superpower that language gives us. The ability to make things happen in the other person’s brain. Language affects how the other person feels about themselves and you. Using a word that describes the person in a way that does not match with how they feel, or avoiding usage of words that affirm the other person, can effectively mean you’re saying as much as “your self-image, your life story, means nothing to me”.

All the words we say, and all the words we don’t say, are a reflection of how we see the world and each other. The person you are talking to or about, is inevitably affected by your choice of words. Terry Pratchett expressed it, Sartre surmised it in his play “No Exit”, and quantum theory affirms it: The act of observing changes the observed. How other people see you, unfortunately does have power over you. You see yourself through the eyes of others, through how they respond to you. Your interactions shape your brain.

The transgender community is one of the communities that, in my view, not only actively champions acceptance of gender identity in all its forms, but also revolts against an observer having too much say about the observed.

In fact, I think this concept provides a basic foundation on which courtesy can be built. Courtesy is not about saying please and thank you. It is about realizing all the ways in which you can harm the inner world of the other person, and doing your best to avoid it.

I think the basic rule to being courteous is this:

To make an effort to avoid actions that hurt another person, when the action serves no other purpose than to eliminate your own discomfort, unless not doing the action hurts you yourself.

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