Let's Suffer Better Together: Graciousness Over Etiquette, and Talking To Someone In The Same Room As You
I’m out of the professional advice game at present, but I recently fielded a relatively low-stakes question from a friend about referents that interested me. I was once again struck by what a valuable currency it is, being asked one’s opinion by a friend; one feels flush with warmth, appreciation, and a sense of belonging. One feels important, but also useful, which checks any tendency towards puffing up, not to mention endeared towards the friend who has sought our help. If you want to do someone a favor, ask them for their advice on some minor point of polite behavior; you’ll make their day.
I admired my friend, too, for posing this particular question in her present circumstances: She is going through something very difficult, which causes her no small degree of suffering, and has taken the opportunity to think carefully about polite speech.1
“I have a question! I don’t think you’ll mind me asking this. There are some people in my group therapy whose gender isn’t clear. Is there a polite way to ask? I introduced myself with my pronouns last time but a few people weren’t there, and nobody else followed my lead.
We talk a lot to and about each other in our sessions, and I just don’t know how to ask without making it weird. Or should I just use first names?”
I had told my friend on previous occasions that I like answering questions of gendered etiquette like this one, so she was right to start with “I don’t think you’ll mind,” which addresses the fact that some other trans people might mind it, and leaving room for ambivalence or demurral on my part. An excellent beginning!
I’ve written a great deal at this point about dealing with bad actors during transition (particularly of the type who claim to be supportive and then seek to undermine the process at every available opportunity) to such an extent that I fear I have erred on the side of overstating the likelihood of deception and sabotage. I don’t wish to overcorrect in the other direction, of course, but let us say that without minimizing the very real presence of transphobia at both the interpersonal and institutional level, there are nevertheless a great many people who genuinely want to be polite and easygoing, who are just looking for a few pointers. There are additionally plenty of people who have no problem establishing polite and easygoing terms of conversation with a trans person one-on-one who might nonetheless begin to second-guess themselves in a group setting without a little guidance or reassurance.
It’s still important to screen for willful and disguised malice, and particularly to screen out anyone who makes a meal out of how “difficult” acknowledging transition through speech is, but one of the dangers in transition, at least for me, has been seeing myself as a subject-matter expert and spending too much of my mental energies on how other people can accommodate me, while neglecting my duties towards accommodating others. This is not good for my character.2
Having gotten the necessary throat-clearing out of the way, I laid out the most important principles of polite behavior, as I saw them, in my friend’s group sessions:
I think she’d correctly identified the point of incongruence: She felt unconsciously confident about gendering most of the members of the group. This confidence may or may not have been accurate, but it made her feel secure and like she was standing on solid ground, conversationally speaking; when we feel like we know how to behave politely towards other people, we’re able to talk freely towards them. This is especially useful in a group therapy context, where we might expect to talk about fairly intimate and controversial topics with people we haven’t known for very long. On the other hand, she felt uncertain about how to refer to other members of the group, and equally uncertain about the appropriateness of asking anyone outright.
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I think there is, in such moments, a fear of being corny, a fear of being mistaken, a fear of being or appearing gauche, a fear of intruding where one is supposed to extend a respectful distance, and a fear of standing away at a remove where one is supposed to extend a friendly hand of welcome, that can inhibit speech, and the more a person wants to “do right” by others, the more inhibited their speech can become. Nor are group-level activities like pronoun check-ins perfect or reliable problem-solvers here, since requiring disclosure, especially on first introductions, can inhibit different kinds of speech.
None of this is to say I think talking to, or about, trans and potentially trans people, is so difficult or complicated that there is no hope of establishing sound general principles. But in establishing a general framework for polite inquiry, we must take into account that different trans people may want very different things out of speech, sometimes even contradictory things. What puts some of us at ease might put others on edge; what makes one person feel acknowledged might make another feel branded by difference, even failure. That tension can be difficult to navigate! For someone who just wants to know what to say and how to be polite, asking outright “How should I refer to you?” might seem like the most straightforward route back into certainty and ease, while to someone who just wants to fly under the radar it might feel like an unwelcome announcement over a PA system.
To that end I told my friend not to ask anyone outright in a group setting, especially not on a basis as subjective as appearance. I remember how, during the first six months of my soft-launch transition, I was often asked about my pronouns, whereas no one had ever asked them of me before. These requests were always polite and genuine, but for all that they nevertheless made me feel put on the spot. What I wanted most of all during that time was freedom and flexibility to try new things, to change my appearance, without it being remarked on. Some elements of that desire was impossible,3 especially because I was also at other times desperate to be asked about what I was doing; I just couldn’t have told you when those times were, or what I wanted to be asked, or what kind of person I hoped would do the asking.
I told my friend I thought her strategy of mentioning her own pronouns and leaving room for others to opt-in was a fairly good one; if she wanted to repeat it once more, since several group members had been absent the first time she’d done it, that would be fine, but not to go further than that, nor to identify anyone in particular to follow her lead.4 The fine point here is that seeking reassurance from others in in some cases the polite thing to do, but in this case, seeking reassurance about how to refer to someone based on their subjective appearance might itself be an act of rudeness.
For my own part it did me good to think about what graciousness might look like in such a setting — how can a group of people work together to put one another at greater ease and relaxation as they talk together? On my friend’s part, it might look like releasing internal tension if no one takes her up on her information exchange, accepting the possibility that she might at some point speak of someone in terms they might not use with others, rather than requiring them to resolve that tension for her. On my part, it might be looking to help others resolve moments of tension or uncertainty without become perverse or withholding, something I’m unfortunately very capable of when I’ve decided someone else has violated an unspoken rule that’s important to me.
If I become more eager to “catch someone out” than I do to collaborate in a conversation, I’ve already lost the point. I don’t just want people to be polite to me, I want them to want the same things I want; I don’t just want them to want the same things I want once they find out what those things are, I want them to have already come to want those things independently and without my having to say so; I want invisible, unspoken unanimity, and when I invariably fail to receive it (since that sort of thing is impossible outside of that one Twilight Zone episode where little Anthony Fremont can make everyone in town think in accordance with his wishes) I want to the power to enforce and chastise. It’s an unlovely impulse in me!
I think it’s possible to speak kindly, frankly, and respectfully with other people, even other people who are very different with ourselves; I think it gets easier the more we seek to make things easy for others. I think it gets more difficult, at least in my experience, the more I seek to impose my own will, especially when I seek to impose my own will while pretending to myself I’m not trying to do anything.
If you have a question about low-grade interpersonal etiquette or how to transform suffering into something useful, feel free to reply to this email and I’ll try to answer it in the future. Let’s suffer better together.
This may sound as though I believe suffering is, or ought to be, redemptive; let’s say I think it can be turned to better account, if one chooses to do so, but if it can be avoided altogether, so much the better. For the occasions where avoidance is impossible, I think it can be very good to say from time to time, I cannot stop this suffering which has come to me; how can I be useful to others even as I suffer? It’s a sturdy bulwark against self-pity, which is a force I have found more destructive than almost any other. (You may have found other forces more destructive in your own life, in which case this advice may not be as helpful to you as it has been to me. Do feel free to ignore it, if that’s the case.)
Growing up, I might have called this “my immortal soul.” Functionally I think they are the same thing.
Some element of all desires is impossible, probably. Some people adopt a policy of never, or almost never, referring to other people’s appearances in order to avoid this very thing; I’m not so sure that’s the best solution, especially on a wide scale. And of course it creates problems at the other end of the scale. But it’s probably worth trying once in a while!
Certainly I can think of a few times when someone has “offered” their pronouns in an expectant manner, as a sort of fishing expedition, and I’ve bridled internally as a result.