Honorifics in the 21st century

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I have been a data professional on and off since my first full time job in 1997, though my work with data started long before that when I would catalogue my family's music collection in a spreadsheet. Categorizing things is part of our nature as data professionals. It helps us design better databases by knowing which label to use and which data type is most appropriate.

But what happens when someone defines themself as the antithesis of something? What on earth is "Non-binary"? How can you not be something? What happens if someone starts out presenting one way, and then they look different and change their name? What on earth is "Transgender"? How can you change your gender?

Unfortunately, our language has lagged when it comes to talking about this topic. The rise of the Internet has exposed us to new ways of thinking, thereby changing our social contracts, but it feels to many of us like things are moving too quickly. Words we might have used 20 years ago are considered inappropriate, harmful even, by today's standards. Communication is tough to navigate, isn't it?

It turns out that there have been transgender and non-binary people for hundreds of years, if not thousands. Certain cultures celebrate a third, sometimes even a fourth gender. In North America, indigenous people have people they call two-spirit. Native Hawaiians and Tahitians refer to people of indeterminate gender. This concept might be new to Western culture, but it is not a new concept.

Being new means that we don't have many words to describe aspects of this concept. It's hard enough getting your mind around the idea that someone who looks and dresses and sounds like a man, refuses that assignment and demands to be called something else. The human pattern-matching algorithm is confused. Our brains need to create new pathways in regions that have traditionally relied on automatic mode.

Not only that, but we can't use the same categories that data professionals rely on to do their jobs. It turns out that gender isn't a Boolean. Gender is not true or false, 1 or 0, binary. Intersex people exist (at approximately the same percentage worldwide as people with red hair). Non-binary people exist. Transgender people exist. They may not be in the majority, but that is no reason to dismiss them. We have to account for these differences in our databases, and in our daily lives.

It might be helpful to think of gender as a floating point value. We can only assign the closest approximation in binary notation to the value, and there are as many genders as there are people on the planet.

Honorifics

So, let's talk about pronouns and honorifics. When you want to address someone who presents as male, your pattern matching algorithm goes into your brain's archive and says "if this is someone I respect, I should call them Mister". Your brain short circuits this thought process because it's busy filling in the blanks at the best of times, and now you've misgendered someone. You didn't mean it. You're sorry. You don't mean to offend. It's not that you don't respect that person. And so on.

When a database server crashes, we data professionals go straight to the documentation. We open the run book and see what we must do. There is a checklist of actions to perform in a specific order, and if we follow that checklist, the databases will be recovered and then we have gin and ice cream.

When a pilot and co-pilot are about to fly a commercial airline, they must follow a pre-flight checklist. Between them they must confirm that the aircraft is ready to take the lives of passengers into the sky for more than a few minutes, fighting against gravity, air pockets, the elements, other pilots, and gin and ice cream, to arrive safely at their destination.

Why does a commercial aircraft have two pilots? Why do we need run books? Why do most commercial planes have two or more engines? Why do we use redundancy on our database server hardware?

Because humans are terrible at remembering things, and we're fragile. We have to practise things a bunch of times before we get them right. So when a non-binary person asks you to use different pronouns, or forgo honorifics altogether, you need to practise over and over again until you get it right, just like you practise restoring your database environment, or I practise my piano playing.

My name is Randolph West. I am non-binary, queer, and autistic. That's a lot to remember, so I try to make it easy for you: just call me Randolph. If you have to use pronouns, substitute in my name. If that gets klunky, use "they/them/their".

For example, instead of saying “Should I get him a coffee?”, say “Should I get Randolph a coffee?” or even “Should I get them a coffee?” I know it sounds strange at first, but it’s good to say it out loud a few times to get used to it. Singular "they" has been around three times as long in the English language as the United States has been a country. If you get it wrong, apologise and move on. I promise you I'll be more upset if you spell my name wrong.

As I wrote in my chapter of "Stories from the Trenches", if you can remember a Starbucks order, you can remember someone's pronouns. By practising, you reprogram the pattern matching algorithm until it becomes a new habit. Like having to learn during a pandemic not to shake hands, you can learn to ask someone their pronouns. And to make it easier, you can start putting your pronouns on your business card, on your presentation slides, and when you introduce yourself.

There will be people who don't want to tell you their pronouns. They will absolutely give you no clue as to their gender. That's also OK. Because like my blog post, which says that a person's gender shouldn't be stored in a database unless it's legally or medically necessary, we need to get to a point in social interactions where our language allows for gender to not be a thing.

Until then, my name is Randolph and my pronouns are they/them/their.

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