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Anxious About Mis-Gendering a Non-Binary Person?

Binary gender categorization is ingrained thought, yet the brain can adapt.

Key points

  • Biosocial explanations contribute to difficulties when speaking they/them pronouns or the non-use of pronouns.
  • Transition from the use of gendered pronouns to gender-neutral pronouns requires a mental shift in habits.
  • It takes time and practice to rewire linguistic patterns and adapt.
Gender diverse persons may not use binary-gendered pronouns nor any pronouns.
Source: "Armin Rimoldi/Pexels"

Using they/them pronouns when referring to individuals who identify as non-binary or genderqueer may be challenging for some people for reasons other than lack of respect or acceptance. There may be reasons underlying this challenge that are relevant to cultural neuroscience. Many humans across the globe have brains that have been socialized to organize and categorize people into two groups: male or female. For many, doing this has become an ingrained pattern of thought. In cognitive science, these ingrained patterns are called "schema." Schemas can be difficult to shift the longer they have been ingrained. Understanding pronouns and having mindful strategies for the use of pronouns may be helpful.

Importance of Pronouns

Although it may not often be consciously thought about, we encounter pronouns throughout the day in conversations and when we view or listen to media. They're an essential part of language and human communication. Culturally, pronouns facilitate communication, reflect a person's gender identity, and affirm peoples' sense of themselves. Socio-culturally, we have learned that they are used to demonstrate respect and support for others' identities. Some people may not use pronouns at all, which, for our biosocial brains' ingrained thought patterns, could be quite an adaptive challenge.

Cultural Neuroscientific Challenges

There are biosocial explanations that contribute to difficulties some face when incorporating they/them pronouns or non-use of pronouns at all. Even though our brains do like novelty for holding our attention and for ease of communication and understanding, our brains more quickly process the familiar.

Since learning traditional grammar rules from an early age, these rules result in associating they/them pronouns with plural references. Therefore, the brain may not be accustomed to using they/them pronouns as a singular reference to an individual person. The impact that this socialization has on neural processing is explained by unfamiliarity leading to hesitation, confusion, and accompanying anxiousness when attempting to use what is unfamiliar in communications.

In part, this is comparable to the increased difficulty of learning a new language the older we are. Brain plasticity is defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections (Mateos-Aparicio & Rodríguez-Moreno, 2019). As we grow older, brain plasticity decreases to stabilize what we have already learned from the more unfamiliar. Transitioning from using gendered pronouns to gender-neutral ones, or using no pronouns, requires a mental shift in language habits. It could take time and practice to rewire linguistic patterns and adapt to making this change, though the difficulty can be overcome with openness and practice.

Socio-Cultural Stigma, Resistance, Overcoming

Few people likely think about how much social norms and social expectations have reinforced a gender binary in communications. Therefore, some individuals may feel uncomfortable or resistant to using they/them pronouns due to anxiety about judgment or even backlash. Breaking free from these ingrained biases requires conscious effort and open-mindedness.

While it may initially be challenging, there are ways to overcome the difficulties of using they/them pronouns. Using active voice is important. For example, say, "Chris is driving us to the fair tonight. They drive well, and usually they are on time!" Here are a few other tips:

  • Practice using they/them pronouns or a person's name only as default in everyday conversations when you do not yet know someone's gender-preferred language.
  • Engage in role-playing exercises or use online resources to familiarize yourself with gender-neutral language. Repetition helps to reinforce new habits and make the words feel more natural for your brain over time.
  • Be open to constructive criticism and learn from mistakes. This will also reduce some of the anxiety about making a mistake and viewing criticism negatively.
  • Attend workshops or training sessions to learn more about gender diversity and inclusive language that requires speaking openly. This is comparable to practicing conversations within new language-learning groups or classes. This will likely lead to decreased stress when using words in a manner outside of one's comfort zone.


Using they/them pronouns when referring to non-binary individuals may initially pose challenges due to unfamiliarity, linguistic habits, decrease in brain plasticity with age, and societal resistance. However, with education about ingrained thought patterns, engagement in repetitive practice, and openness, it is possible to overcome difficulties stemming from unfamiliarity and anxiousness about making linguistic mistakes.


Mateos-Aparicio, P. & Rodríguez-Moreno, A. (2019). The impact of studying brain plasticity. Front. Cell. Neurosci.,
Volume 13 |

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