He, she, he, she… ugh! The other day I was called downstairs and introduced to a foreign customer team I had not yet met. As the program manager described my function and that of my group, I could not help but notice a startling lack of pronoun consistency. Within one run on sentence I was she, then he, then she again. Always pleasant. I’m very certain it was not intentional, but I could tell the visitors were somewhat confused, or at least more so then they were when I first walked in the room and got the hairy eyeball. Is there a right way to deal with this professionally?
I’ve said it before, but just want to make it clear that my work has been wonderful in dealing with my transition. Not just HR and management, but the overall employee base in general. I got some weird stares and a bit of avoidance at first, but if it’s still going on at all, it’s not so that I even notice. In short, I am not trying to claim any sort of unfair treatment or discrimination; quite the opposite in fact. I’m now even more heavily investing in ensuring success here because I’m really not interested in having to go elsewhere. Well, this might be a onetime occurrence I figured.
It wasn’t. Last week I attended an all day meeting with the same PM, but different customer. Over the course of 8 hours I was an even mix of Mike and Michelle; he and she, often in the same sentence. Most of the time they silently stared at me from across the table and only engaged in a minimum of chit-chat during lunch. Ugh. I could not have been more uncomfortable and retreated back to the safety of silence whenever possible. Plus I wore the wrong shoes and my feet and ass were killing me just sitting there.
I already know there are some of you out there who are simply aching to get furious. “That’s bullshit Michelle! Next time you stop her dead in her tracks, grab her by the short hairs (I’ve never been sure what that means, although I’ve always guessed it means ‘the short and curlies’ which is inappropriate and pretty gross) and lay it on the line. ‘You will call me ‘she’, bitch.” Yeah, that’s not how I do things at all. I’ve never been super good at beating people into submission. In fact, my team still talks about the one meeting in my 11 years here where I actually raised my voice and got a little upset. When people yell at me, I tend to tune them out in favor of drafting an internal plan on how to get even in the near future and have to assume that anyone else is going to do the same thing.
The calm and reasonable approach is to talk to her on the side, say I noticed what was happening and how our mutual customer was receiving it, and just wanted to let her know. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I believe it is how most people would professionally approach such a delicate subject. What is bothering me about this then? Why does this seem like the right answer on paper, but not exactly right with a bullet in the forehead? If such a right even exists that is. It’s not conflict avoidance, because the approach isn’t confrontational and falls right within my comfort zone. I don’t even expect the information to make her feel upset or embarrassed. It was an honest mistake and something she is still continuing to process in her own mind. What then?
I think I nailed down my concern. True, if I bring it up, it won’t get anyone in a tizzy. We’ll both write it off to an honest mistake and all part of the transition process. She is human though, and I think it’s a fair bet to say she’ll feel self conscious the next time we are in that situation; that much you can bet on. I would. Do I want that? The human reaction to feeling self-conscious is to avoid those situation when we see no harm in doing so (actual harm is of course in no way related to perceived harm). Next time would she invite me down to meet a new customer or attend an excruciatingly long meeting? She certainly doesn’t want to look like a horses ass in front of them, so wouldn’t it be easier to just handle things herself? What’s the harm? Other than marginalizing my position of course.
In reality, the root of the faux pas is that while she has accepted my change and been very respectful of it, she hasn’t quite made the full switch in her own mind yet. She knew me as a guy for 11 years, and I’ve probably interacted with her about 4 times since my work transition. Couldn’t one argue that ongoing periodic exposure will help her make the mental leap and set a new neural pathway that has ‘she’ and ‘her’ naturally rolling off her tongue without a second thought? The devil in me is saying this is the cowardly way of handling it and I am simply looking for an excuse to do nothing and have everything turn out just ducky. Unfortunately, I think it’s the only option.