The English language does not make things easy on genderqueer folks, or on anyone who prefers the gender neutral over the gender specific (as in "mailman" vs. "mail carrier" - they mean the same thing, but "mailman" rolls so easily off the tongue that despite thinking about this stuff constantly, even I have to take a second every time to remember to say "mail carrier" instead). English pronouns are tricky. The sir/ma'am binary makes addressing strangers feel like traversing a social etiquette minefield (at least any cashier/waiter/clothing store clerk who has ever encountered me seems to think so).
As a matter of fact, I got called "ma'am" and "miss" about seventeen million times the other day while buying a sandwich (Yes. Seventeen million times. By precise count of the official binary-O-meter, patent pending.). It threw me off a bit because that happens to me so rarely. I've let my hair grow out a little bit in the front and I was all bundled up for winter, so I'll blame it on that. Still, it got me thinking about how we could address strangers using words less gender-charged than "sir" or "ma'am" without resorting to the less-than-polite "Hey you," which most people tend not to appreciate. Here's my food for thought:
1. "Friend" (In place of sir/ma'am).
You go to order a sandwich and instead of asking you, "What are you having today, ma'am?" the cashier would say "What are you having today, friend?" This is also helpful for catching the attention of someone whose name you do not know, i.e., "Excuse me, friend! You've dropped your wallet!" Added bonus: In addition to being gender neutral, the use of "friend" allows you to avoid the more condescending/potentially offensive "sweetie" or "honey-pie," the awkwardly formal "sir," and the age crapshoot associated with deciding between "ma'am" and "miss."
2. "Good-lookin" (In place of he/him/she/her/they/them)
Unfortunately, I can't take credit for this one. A good friend of mine came up with this brilliant idea as a means of talking about folks in the third person without using gendered pronouns (and getting to compliment everyone you're talking about to boot). Example: "Joe is headed to the store. Good-lookin is going to pick up a few groceries for us." Plural use is also encouraged: "My relatives are coming in for a visit. Good-lookin are the best houseguests ever."
3. "People" (In place of women/men)
I know this one seems obvious, but hear me out - this one is less about language itself and more about gendered language as a marketing ploy. I cannot even explain to you how excited I would be to find myself at the pharmacy and suddenly see in place of all the bodywash "for women" and deodorant "for men" a display advertising "Soap! For people!" I mean, seriously, since when did male-bodied and female-bodied people start needing different soap? When I was a kid, we had one bar of soap in the bathtub at a time. Everybody used the same soap. Everybody got clean. This is apparently no longer the case for many people. Now, I do understand that some people like soap that smells like coconuts and daisies. Some people like soap that smells like industrial-strength laundry detergent. Still others prefer a hint of fake mountain air. Although soap-makers assume these preferences fall along gendered lines, none of this means we must have gender apartheid in the soap aisle. I think soap companies should consider marketing their products in ways that would expand their target audiences. For instance, a conventionally masculine guy who likes the delicate scent of lavender probably won't buy lavender bodywash "for women," but he might buy lavender bodywash "for people who enjoy lavender," thus expanding the potential consumer base for lavender soap. I'll be waiting by the phone for that marketing consultant job offer from Suave anytime now.
Love the post, Sumner. Just looking at your facebook page to see what you're up to and came across your blog. I especially like the suggestion of "friend". I've become much more aware of gender pronouns in the last couple years, and though I've had some practice with calling people by the pronouns that they asked to be called, I have been in situations where I come across strangers and find myself slipping back into gender binaries based on my assumption of how I perceive them. I like the idea of trying to use the word friend instead of either awkwardly not using any word to address them or going back into my old ways of relating based on my perceptions. Thanks for the suggestions!ReplyDelete