“Don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin.”
The quote is from Bob Dylan. Do you know the song?
And here’s a Taoist story along the same lines.
There once was a farmer whose horse ran away. On hearing of the misfortune, the farmer’s neighbor arrived to commiserate, but all he got from the farmer was, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
This proved to be true, for the next day the horse returned, bringing with it a drove of wild horses in its train. This time the neighbor arrived with congratulations, only to receive the same response. “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
This too was so, for the next day the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the wild horses and broke a leg.
More commiserations from the neighbor, with the same response which was again validated, for soldiers soon came around commandeering for the army, and the son was spared because of his injury.
Another way to think of this concept is: God is still speaking. More will be revealed and it is not for me to judge in the present what is best for the future.
I once saw someone accept bad news as neither good nor bad, just news. I once saw someone accept bad news as truly bad, yet remain open to things turning good; open to unimaginable twists of fate. I once saw someone receive awesomely good news, yet not get carried away with illusions of grandeur. “There are no big deals,” this person used to say.
These three people showed me that I always have a choice to accept whatever comes. I have a choice to react with moderation. I have a choice to make peace with whatever is happening now and simply be curious about whatever comes next.
To many people, new pronouns and newly-visible gender identities can be confusing, intimidating, or even alarming. I’m talking about when a person asks be referred to as they. Or someone who looks like a man asks to be referred to as she. Or a feminine-looking person wants to be called a he.
There are lots of terms and definitions out there and for me it was too much to learn it all at once. Here are some basics.
Assigned Sex – An anatomical thing, the description that a doctor assigns to a baby based on their body. Typically referred to as male, female, or intersex.
Gender – What your core spirit feels like. Whether you feel like a man or a woman or something else deep inside. Some people have two spirits, or more, and those deep inside feelings can change from day to day. Typically referred to as man/boy, woman/girl, nonbinary, or queer.
Sexual Orientation – The sex or gender you want to get cuddly with. Typically referred to as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual.
Old Ideals Coming Out
Most Americans, especially older Americans, have a traditional mindset that if a person looks like girl she is a girl and she likes boys. Or if a person looks like a man that means he has male anatomy and that means he should want to date women.
Not true today. Or ever, actually. And as much I might long for tidy alignment among sex, gender, and attraction, it’s not okay for me to pretend or ignore that a colorful variety of genders and orientations exist today. It’s not okay for me to assume that every person, or any person, is aligned that way.
I’ve found that it works well if I easily allow for anyone I meet, however they look, to align their stuff however they want. It’s a Quaker ideal: listen and act on the light of god within you. And it’s an American ideal: we love our rights to individual freedom and self determination. We pride ourselves as a nation of self-made people!
And did you know that using the pronoun “they” to refer to an individual is not new in the English language? Shakespeare used it that way, for instance.
Four Things I’ve Learned
This is not a whole big explanation of pronouns. There’s a lot to it. I’m simply trying to pass along some basics that I’ve learned only in the last few years. And I’m open to corrections, clarifications, and other views. We’re all just trying to figure this out.
1. Make an effort
It’s hard when someone asks you to change how you think of them. For example, “I know I’ve been your female-looking co-worker for years, but I actually identify as non-binary and prefer using they/them when referring to me.” It’s also hard when someone looks feminine but asks to be thought of and referred to as masculine, or visa versa.
These things can be really hard, actually. Gender-based cues and instincts have been hard-wired into us. Having to change this “hard wiring” can feel like an imposition. Yet “because it’s hard” is not an excuse. I have to make an effort. And you know what? It’s not actually hard-wired with actual wire. Old instincts exist in your brain cells and brain cells can change.
The effort I have to make is mostly a spiritual one; to actually really see every person as a unique individual who gets to define themselves. If that’s what I’m walking around with – that spiritual attitude — I’m not likely to accidentally show disrespect.
Yet I also have to make an effort with specific people who have asked for they/them pronouns or pronouns that don’t immediately “register with me.” Most people who want specific pronouns tell us what they want. It’s my job to keep track of that and when I am about to write to or talk to such a person, or about such a person, I am actively trying to keep in mind that when a sentence calls for a pronoun, I will say the right thing. I practice in my head.
2. Catch your mistakes
When I realize I have made a mistake, I look for an immediate opportunity to fix it. I don’t pretend it didn’t happen or that no one noticed, even though there may be no reaction whatsoever. At the next break in the conversation, for instance, I might say, “I realize I called you a she just now and that’s not right. Sorry about that.”
Then move on. No need to make a thing of it. Demonstrate respect by actually NOT making a thing of it. A quick look-in-the-eye genuine apology can go a long way. And look for a chance to use the correct pronoun in the future so we can all see that you are serious about wanting to get it right.
3. Learn stuff on your own
When I first started encountering people who wanted me to call them they instead of he or she, my instinct was to ask them to explain themselves. Really, I wanted to learn from them what this was all about and why they were asking me to make such an accommodation.
Blaaak. That notion – that I wanted people to explain themselves – sends shivers now that I write it. It reminds me of “Explain yourself young lady,” or other phrases I heard as a child.
And that’s exactly what it might feel like to a person being asked to explain: demeaning. Perhaps “justify yourself,” is a good translation of how it might feel.
Curiosity is good and if you feel close enough with a they/them type person to talk about stuff like gender then ease into a conversation and be ready stop at any moment. But don’t expect someone to teach you from scratch. Learn some stuff on your own first. Use the right words. Have good questions. Show some respect. Be the ambassador who arrives in a foreign country and even though clumsy, tries to greet people in their native language.
4. Embrace the opportunity
Rather than look at someone with they/them pronouns as a burden, I can make a choice to see it as an opportunity. What an easy way to show someone instant respect! All I have to do is pay attention to what someone wants to be called and do what they ask. They will notice. Using the right pronoun is an easy way to build instant mutual rapport.
I can have a bad attitude about gender-neutral pronouns or I can embrace them like I embraced computers, cellphones, and zoom. Actually, I should embrace gender-neutral people way more than those things. Those are machines. Gender-neutral people are people!
As in may of these articles, I need to check my privilege. My sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all aligned in very traditional ways. I don’t get questioned. I don’t get asked about my pronouns very often. But I broadcast them anyway as a show of support for others, and to show you that I COULD be a they/them but happen to be a he/him; no better or worse than a they/them or a her/she, just all of us sharing our pronouns.
As a practical matter, I have a lot to gain by making an effort on pronouns and little to lose.
See right there? That’s the first step: admitting the mistake.
I walked away from a conversation last week feeling uneasy. Angry actually. It didn’t go well. My first reaction, as usual, was to blame the other person. But as I tried to explain away the discomfort in my head as the other person’s fault, it didn’t go away. It’s often like this. And if I stay with it and remember that I’m supposed to practice humility, I often come to that bittersweet conclusion: I made a mistake. It was me who messed up.
I hate that. Opening the gates of regret. Having to admit, even if only to myself, that I was at fault. Embarrassed. Wishing I could take something back. Wanting an impossible do-over. That’s the bitter part.
The sweet part is that now I have a way out. Because I admitted the mistake, there IS a path to peace. I know that if I do something about my mistake, I will be able to move forward untethered.
1. Sometimes the thing that I have to do is to simply admit my mistake out loud. If I use the wrong gender pronoun for instance, I’ve learned to immediately acknowledge the mistake and move on. Sometimes it’s making a statement to your team or your family. Sometimes it’s called a confession, or a fifth step. Just saying your mistake out loud to another human being can be hugely freeing.
2. Sometimes the thing I have to do is make an apology. With a degree of reverence or formality I say words directly to someone who was harmed by my mistake. It’s a way to let them know I noticed, and that I wish it hadn’t happened that way. A genuine apology doesn’t care if it’s accepted or not. It’s not conditional in any way. A genuine apology is never followed with a but.
3. Sometimes the thing that I have to do is to make an amend; make an offer to fix the mistake, and follow through. Sometimes it means you have to pay for something or actually take responsibility for something. Sometimes the problem that you caused can’t actually be fixed because someone’s not around or perhaps raising an old wrong with someone might do more harm than good. A solution here is to give time or money to a cause related to the mistake you made. Perhaps you can’t make peace with a person from the past but you can help other people in the future. I like the term “living amends.”
4. Sometimes I simply make a vow. A promise. A prayer to my future self: “Don’t ever make that mistake again!” But it’s more than just saying that once in a fit of frustration, it’s actually imagining future scenarios over and over again and imagining myself NOT making that mistake. I work at it. I try to train my brain to be different in the future. I actually practice different words in my head; the words I will use next time. I can’t change the past but I can try my best to turn that mistake into a lesson learned.
For me, realizing that I have made a mistake often comes with guilt and anguish. My mind races about it. What I should have done differently? What does someone think of me now? What’s really behind what happened? My neck and back muscles tighten. I think about it WAY too much.
And for me, the solution is usually to turn that nervous energy into actually doing something about it. I work hard to accept what happened and then I try to focus on what I need to do to feel okay about what I did. I turn from the past to the future. And do something.
The hard part of admitting a mistake is the voice from within that says: “Damn. It’s true. I did a bad thing. I wish I could have that moment back.” The wonderful part of admitting a mistake is that it’s the first step towards making peace with it. In fact, I can’t actually make peace with my mistakes if I’m not willing to say they exist.
I made a big mistake last week. Really. It brought me to tears. Writing this is one of the things I’m doing about it.
I think this book is about bridging divides; about understanding each other. “The Gatherings provided an opportunity to learn “from” rather than learn “about” Indigenous experiences and perspectives, a subtle but powerful distinction that disrupts the colonial legacy of objectifying Indigenous peoples.” That’s from the Afterward by Frances Hancock.
This is what we tried to do at Make Shift Coffee Houses; places where liberals and conservatives came together to learn “from” each other rather than “about” each other. And it disrupted the labels they otherwise put on each other.
Here’s from the jacket flap: In a world that requires knowledge and wisdom to address developing crises around us, The Gatherings shows how Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples can come together to create meaningful and lasting relationships.
Thirty years ago, in Wabanaki territory – a region encompassing the state of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes – a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals came together to explore some of the most pressing questions at the heart of Truth and Healing efforts in the United States and Canada. Meeting over several years in long-weekend gatherings, in a Wabanaki-led traditional Council format, assumptions were challenged, perspectives upended, and stereotypes shattered. Alliances and friendships were formed that endure to this day.
The Gatherings tells the moving story of these meetings in the words of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants. Reuniting to reflect on how their lives were changed by their experiences and how they continue to be impacted by them, the participants share the valuable lessons they learned.
The many voices represented in The Gatherings offer insights and strategies that can inform change at the individual, group, and systems levels. These voices affirm that authentic relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples – with their attendant anxieties, guilt, anger, embarrassments, and, with time, even laughter and mutual affection – are key to our shared futures here in North America. Now, more than ever, it is critical that we come together to reimagine.
The book is authored by Shirley N. Hager and Mawopiyane. Shirley Hager is a retired from University of Maine Cooperative Extension and is a Maine Quaker active in Tribal-State relations. Mawopiyane, in Passamaquoddy, literally means “let us sit together,” but the deeper meaning is a group of people coming together, as in a longhouse, to struggle with a sensitive or divisive issue….. Mawopiyane is a word that is recognizable in all Wabanaki languages, and it reflects the collaborative nature of our efforts [from the book].
Here are the names of the contributors: Gwen Bear, The Reverend Shirley Bowen, Alma H. Brooks/Zapawey-kwey, gkisedtanamoogk, JoAnn Hughes, Debbie Leighton, Barb Martin, Miigam’agan, T. Dana Mitchell, Wayne A. Newell, Betty Peterson, Marilyn Keyes Roper, Wesley Rothermel.
Several years ago I wrote a Good Group Tip called Love and it was published in my first book. A high school friend of my daughter’s picked up the book and thumbed through it, stopping on the Love page. “I get that this is a book about group decision making, ” he said in a 16-year kind of way. “But what’s love got to do with it?”
I’m pretty sure he had no idea about the Tina Turner song. It’s just that he reckoned himself a future businessman and couldn’t see why Love would be in a business book.
Then this comment shows up at the website. Just days ago. About Love. From my brother John Prista Freshley. A businessman.
“I have started and led a wide variety of start-ups. And, ever since Craig wrote this tip in his book, I have included it in every company (starting in 2006). And, I have tried to practice and, often, quite explicitly. “I want us to have loving, caring relationships with each other. Start-ups are hard and love is part of the glue that will hold us together.” It is always a powerful moment.
A lesson learned….
Like many of Craig’s tips, it is sometimes super hard to practice and…a few years back, one of my daughters suggested that I read “The 5 Love Languages.” There are some simplistic things in there, but I instantly realized that many of my colleagues that I thought I was treating lovingly, did not receive it that way. I was not speaking their language!
I was direct, up-front, challenging them to grow, concerned about the career prospects. Sometimes, that was received as intended. And, sometimes, it was received at pushy, arrogant, “you don’t think I am any good and need to better.” It did not feel like love at all.
So, Craig – I suggest an edit to this old and powerful tip! “Love absolutely belongs in a meeting room and an organization. And, to demonstrate that, learn how your peers and colleagues know that you are being loving towards them.”
It’s no coincidence that I’m writing about the need for men to share leadership on the eve of Earth Day (April 22), in the midst of Spring’s unfolding, and at time when our Earth ecosystem is struggling. I don’t believe that patriarchal leadership marked by empire building has served humanity well and it’s time for a change. To me it’s very simple and very clear; if women were in charge, our environment would be healthier.
The data in the map is 4 years old but relevant I think. In Tan are the countries that have never had a female head of state. The Dark Green countries have had women at the helm for 15 years or more. Read the report here.
And just a note that I struggle to get the terminology right. Many reports on this topic use the term women and many use female. Yet many people don’t identify as men or women. I considered the term non-male so as to include non-binary people, yet I have read cautions about labeling and lumping non-binary people with women. I’m not sure what’s the best terminology, just that it’s time for a change.
If you have been watching Hemingway on PBS, or if you know his essay Hills Like White Elephants, you might recognize this quote. It’s a woman to a man.
I know there is a danger in categorical judgments but I’m going to make one because this is something that I have seen over and over again in my meetings. Men tend to talk more. Women tend to defer more.
I bet that if you tracked the data in the last 100 meetings that I have been in……looked at the proportion of men and women in those meetings and the proportion of time spent talking by each gender, you would find that a disproportional amount of the time is dominated by men.
If your goal in the meeting is to get your way — to get the whole group to affirm what you already know to be true, without even having to hear from anybody else — then interrupt others and dominate the airtime. That’s a good strategy for that goal. But if your goal is for the group to make a good decision with the best available information and the very best chances of implementation due to buy-in, then spend more time listening and less time talking. Make room for everyone.
Now if you’re a man you might be thinking, “Well, if a woman doesn’t speak up that’s her fault; it’s her responsibility.” I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s a shared responsibility. Your part is to yield space. Her part is to speak up.
If you are a man about to make a comment — you know exactly what you want to say and you’re about to jump in — I’m encouraging you to pause, look around the room, especially at the women in the room, and give a chance for one of those women to take your turn.
And I must add, there is something uneasy about asking my fellow men to give over space to women because it comes with a presumption that the space is defacto ours in the first place, to be conceded. A woman actually doesn’t need my permission or concession to speak. The space among us is not defacto mine to control.
The League of Women Voters of Maine and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections teamed up to prepare a recent report – The State of Maine Democracy – that looks at the following:
Voter and Civic Participation
Poverty and Voter Participation
Conduct of Elections
Money in Politics
Freedom of Information
Newspapers and Media Access
A good democracy requires attention to all this stuff. I know people say that the United States is a Republic, or a Federal Republic, or a Constitutional Democracy, and other things, yet fundamentally don’t we want government by the people and for the people? To most of us, we think that basic democracy is when the leaders represent the people. That’s what most Americans expect of their government.
This report looks at factors impacting how well leaders represent their people; the list above.
As you might imagine, my home State of Maine gets good marks. We are proud of our consistently high voter turnout (3rd in the country at last look) and of our high integrity elections. We get high marks for freedom of information and for inclusive and protective voting laws.
Yet all is not well with democracy in Maine. “To put it bluntly,” the report says, “the Legislature is and has been dominated by older white men.” The report also cites gender disparity in the Judiciary. If we expect the leaders to represent the people, it works really well when the leaders look like the people.
Where voter turnout is lowest in Maine, there are correlations with race and poverty. These things (race and poverty) are barriers to voting and thus affect how well “leaders represent the people.”
The report does a great job of providing take-aways and conclusions from a variety of complex data. Thank you League of Women Voters of Maine and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections for helping us monitor the health of our democracy.
Below is an excerpt from a March 25, 2021 letter to staff from Ghent University Rector Rik Van de Walle. Ghent is in Belgium where the population is very dense and where Brussels serves as “the crossroads of Europe.” COVID rates are high. Lockdowns are strict. Vaccines are slow. People are in despair. Here is a leader’s appeal to his colleagues. Bold added by Craig.
With this message, I would like to draw your attention to the impact we all feel, as Ghent University staff and as humans in general. In the current circumstances, it is far from self-evident to always find the right balance: between teaching and research tasks, between teleworkable and non-teleworkable tasks, between work and private life, between caring for others and caring for yourself.
Therefore, I would like to ask you again and explicitly to show the necessary mildness in the coming weeks. Be mild in judging your colleagues and be mild in judging yourself. Expectations and goals cannot be as high as in normal circumstances. Evaluate the impact of the corona crisis on your tasks with your colleagues and your supervisor(s), whether your tasks are teleworkable and on the work planning and allocation of tasks within the team. Adjust expectations and agreements together as needed.
Also be aware that while the corona crisis affects everyone, some are affected (much) harder than others, for reasons that can be both work-related and personal. Inequality and unequal opportunities for further development therefore threaten to increase further. We must remain alert for this and try to prevent such very harmful side effects of the corona crisis, also when tasks or people are being evaluated.
Hence this plea: let us help each other and remain very close to each other, figuratively speaking, in the context of our university activities and beyond. Keep talking to each other. Please do not let this conversation, even from a distance, fall silent.
– Rik Van de Walle, Rector, Ghent University, Belgium
“Don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin.” The quote is from Bob Dylan. Do you know the song? And here’s a Taoist story along the same lines. There once was a farmer whose horse ran away. On hearing of the misfortune, the farmer’s neighbor arrived to commiserate, but all he got from …read more
To many people, new pronouns and newly-visible gender identities can be confusing, intimidating, or even alarming. I’m talking about when a person asks be referred to as they. Or someone who looks like a man asks to be referred to as she. Or a feminine-looking person wants to be called a he. Super-Basic Terms …read more