A Comparison of the Arguments Surrounding Gender-Neutral Language

genderneutralIn my last post, I reacted to negative feedback about the language I used which I perceived as unwarranted and out of place. I belatedly realized that a more productive post than my personal rant would have been one comparing the pros and cons of gendered language – but in the lengthy discussion that followed my post last week, I learned so much about others’ views on the subject.

I’ve compiled a few of the arguments for both sides. There’s a lot of thought-provoking reasoning out there, and some of the material is conflicting. What arguments do you find flawed? What points do you find particularly compelling? Would you add positive or negative arguments to either side?

Positives teaching with gender-neutral language:

  1. The most inclusive language is gender-neutral.
  2. Gender-neutral language is strongly associated with being ambidancetrous – a skill which is widely acknowledged to make us better dancers.
  3. Gender-neutral language undermines societal expectations, which can encourage people to dance outside their “gender-normal” role.

Negatives to teaching with gender-neutral language:

  1. As humans, we process the language we recognize more quickly than language we don’t recognize. Using gender-neutral language can cause us to struggle to absorb information, which means students might be slower to learn material.
  2. When someone specifically avoids gender-specific language, it can create a subtle tension around gendered words. In turn, listener often compare this to speech they perceive as “normal” and recognize a taboo surrounding gender. In essence, sometimes people react more to whether speech sounds normal than to what is actually being said. (There’s a lot more explanation to this argument, and I’m not sure I summarized it adequately; please let me know if you’d like to hear the full reasoning.)
  3. It can be hard to use 100% gender-neutral language as a teacher; this focus can distract teachers from the material, which reduces the quality of the class.
  4. Using gender-neutral language does not necessarily encourage equality. It can even reinforce or highlight sexism.

Positives teaching with gender-specific language:

  1. All people are different (tall, short, lanky, stocky, male, female), and so we all dance differently. Acknowledging whether someone is male or female allows you to teach to their gender, which can help create better dancers.
  2. It often more effective to directly encourage men and women to dance outside their “gender-normal” role. The phrase “Everyone should learn both roles” is non-committal and often ineffective.
  3. Since it sounds “normal,” gender-specific language is easily absorbed by most students; this allows for easy teaching and learning.

Negatives to teaching with gender-specific language:

  1. It is easy to encourage or display sexism using gender-specific language.
  2. Gender-specific language excludes those in the community who find gender equality very important. It makes them uncomfortable and often discourages them from participating in classes or even attending community events.
  3. When students and community members are offended by the gender-specific language being used, it can affect the morale of a class, an event, and the community. This also interrupts learning in class, as students tend to talk more about the language being used than the material being taught.
  4. It’s easy to accidentally use analogies which are influenced by sexism, which is offensive and (surprise!) encourages sexism.
  5. Gender-specific language can be perceived as lazy or dismissive. And sometimes, it is lazy and dismissive – which is a reflection on you as a teacher, organizer, or community member.

We’re more likely to encourage equality through our actions than our language; for the curious, this discussion also raised some great tips on encouraging gender equality regardless of the language you use in class and in the community.

  1. Directly encourage students to dance outside the role they are most comfortable with. Use your words!
  2. If you are ambidancetrous, show it! Lead the community through your own shining example as a lead or follow, regardless of your gender.
  3. Teach classes outside your “gender-normal” role. Bonus points if both teachers switch! Make sure that leads and follows address their questions to the appropriate role, not the dancer with whose gender they most comfortably identify.
  4. Include gender-neutral material in your classes, such as solo dancing. Alternatively, use exercises which encourage students to pair up with the person closest to them, rather than someone who “fits” the lead / follow role.
  5. Actively promote gender-equality in the community: host ambidancetrous workshops. Create a gender-bender competition. Learn from and teach classes which encourage dancing outside a gender-normal role. Do what you can!
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  One thought on “A Comparison of the Arguments Surrounding Gender-Neutral Language

  1. 4 October 2013 at 4:43 am

    This is a really good summery! I especially like the action points at the end.

    I do have one point to argue. You write, “We’re more likely to encourage equality through our actions than our language”, which I completely agree with. However, I view the language we use as an action.

    That is, using gender-specific language is a specific action which I use to encourage equality. It’s a more subtle action than the points you list, but I think it has value. I view gender-neutral language as one tool in my equality tool box.

    (Also, items 1-3 under “Negatives to teaching with gender-neutral language” can easily be dealt with with practice. Yes, teaching in a gender-neutral way is difficult to learn, but it’s no more difficult than learning to teach in the first place.)

    • 4 October 2013 at 8:07 am

      You’re absolutely right – word choice is important, and is technically an action. This sentence speaks more towards the idea that directly encouraging a person or encouraging equality the community by example are more effective actions to take than deciding to use gender-neutral language. It might be more accurate to say that gender-neutral language is a passive-aggressive form of action, which is generally inefficient.

      I disagree that the “Negatives to teaching with gender-neutral language” are easily dealt with through practice, though. While a teacher can certainly work on the language they choose to make it natural, it is very difficult to influence how a student’s learning is affected (poorly or positively) through unfamiliar word choice. Similarly, “common” language will not be changed today, and so the subtle tension that might arise by using unfamiliar word choice will persist until our culture evolves to use gender-neutral language on a daily basis.

      Thanks for your input, Victor! If you have any more arguments/pros/cons to add, I think the discussion would really benefit!

  2. H
    1 June 2016 at 4:21 am

    Hello! It would appear that I’m about 3 years late to discovering this post.
    I agree with a lot of this; I do consider myself one of “those in the community who find gender equality very important” who feels excluded by gender-specific language, and I think that that bullet point was dead-on. I have found myself very frustrated in classes which use gender-specific language – although I will note that, as long as I can see that the teachers are at least making an effort, I’m okay. Like, if they correct themselves from “he” to “they” at least once, then I know that they care and are simply still working on breaking the habit, which I understand; on the other hand, if they are very steadfast about using “he” to refer to leads and “she” to refer to follows, then I don’t know whether they 1) are trying to break the habit, 2) haven’t been informed that gender-specific language is uncomfortable for some, or 3) genuinely believe that there is nothing wrong with using this language *and are unwilling to listen to those who feel otherwise*. I’ve mentioned this to a lot of teachers and for the most part learned that they fell under 1). (I also had one who hinted that he thought I was right but that he didn’t think that other people in the community would respond well to gender-neutral language in the classroom (even though I personally suspected they wouldn’t have cared / would have gotten used to it quickly enough). Not sure how to classify that one.)
    On the other hand, I brought this up with a teacher once (I simply told him that the gendered language was frustrating and distracting for me) (note that I was the only person in this class dancing the role that was not traditional for my gender, so you’d think maybe my words would have meant something, given that I was the only one being referred to as the wrong gender) and had him tell me he didn’t think it mattered and that he didn’t think our community had any problems with sexism. He also basically told me I was being “too political” and that he thought that using gender-specific language was “less political,” not stopping to consider that that was also a political choice… I never took a lesson from him again – not really because of the gender-specific language but because he invalidated my feelings and because it was so clear that he did not want to work with me to make his classes comfortable for me. This was a really bad experience for me and I really don’t think teachers should treat their students this way – I also don’t expect them to accommodate to every request, but wow, responding to “hey, great lesson, but this one thing is frustrating and distracting for me, could you maybe consider not doing it?” with “this shouldn’t matter to you” is invalidation and really not okay :/
    Anyway, all this to say: thank you for acknowledging me and others with similar frustrations 🙂

    I did want to make one point: you say, “All people are different (tall, short, lanky, stocky, male, female), and so we all dance differently. Acknowledging whether someone is male or female allows you to teach to their gender, which can help create better dancers.” Completely agreed about the first sentence! But I think (correct me if I’m wrong!) you’re only talking about body type here, not really gender. You’re teaching to someone’s body, not their gender. Certain body types can definitely be more common in one gender than in others, but I personally feel like it’s best to avoid generalizing like that.
    For example, and I apologize if I read this wrong and this isn’t the sort of thing you’re talking about, but: a lot of women have boobs. Most men do not have boobs. Maybe like half of nonbinary people have boobs. Boobs are often relevant to dancing! (They come between you and your partner a lot of the time if you have them!) But instead of saying, say, “ladies, this move might be a little weird because boobs,” or whatever (sorry, can’t really think of an example on the spot), I would support just saying “this move might be a little weird if you have boobs!” because then no one is excluded. This goes for all other body-type concerns; men are more likely to be tall than women, but it’s just more accurate to say “now, if you’re a lot taller than your partner…” than “men, if you’re a lot taller than your partner…”
    So I would just argue in this instance that acknowledging gender isn’t actually necessary for addressing individual needs and bodies.

    Anyway, this article gave me a little more of an idea about why some folks resist gender-neutral language (aside from “well, gender-specific language is what we’ve always done and it’s too much work to change,” which is what I’ve kind of always assumed was behind the resistance) and while I’ve probably made it obvious what side of things I’m on, I do appreciate that it’s making me think about things I hadn’t previously thought about 🙂 And I would love to hear more about how “When someone specifically avoids gender-specific language, it can create a subtle tension around gendered words”, if you could give me more info on that!

    Cheers! Thanks for writing this!

    • 1 June 2016 at 7:11 am

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing!

      I really appreciate (and empathize) with the struggle you’ve had — I agree that teachers should work to create inclusive classrooms, and it’s inappropriate to dismiss a student’s feelings.

      In all honesty, I wrote this a long time ago. Today, I would agree that gender is not necessary when discussing different body types. I am not sure if I’d be offended if someone called out gender when explaining how to follow or lead to women (or men), but I agree that it’s not necessary.

      Similarly, my views have changed a little bit on how using gender-neutral language might create tension around gendered words. The truth used to be that when someone used gender-neutral language, *I* would notice (and, if it was grammatically incorrect, I would be annoyed). In particular, I love grammar, and the use of “they” for singular nouns gives me the heebie-jeebies. These days, I recognize that using “they” as a singular now is 1) recognized by dictionary, and more importantly, 2) more inclusive to all the people who are non-binary.

      Today, I see that gender-neutral language is often overlooked. Most people don’t even notice it happens — and those who do notice it happens are usually on the side of preferring gender-neutral language for its inclusivity. Now, I make strides to use non-gendered nouns as much as possible (i.e., preferring “folks” or “y’all” over “guys”).

      A lot of my views on gendered *anything* in dance have changed over the last year or more, and I am hoping to follow up to this article (and some others!) to share what I’ve learned, and hopefully to share how we can all work to create a more inclusive community.

      I would love to hear any additional thoughts that you have — thank you so much for speaking up!

      • H
        1 June 2016 at 7:03 pm

        Oh wow, great, looking forward to the follow-up article! 🙂
        Since you asked for additional thoughts, I will throw in a couple more comments:
        Actually, one of the things I was questioning about the article was kind of just addressed by you – it is definitely true that people can get distracted by others using language they’re not used to, but it is also possible for people to get used to that language (as you’ve done with the singular “they”) (or like, maybe you’re not completely used to it? I can’t quite tell from what you wrote. But you did make the transition to accepting/supporting it). I don’t know how quickly that can happen or what is the best way to get people used to gender-neutral language in a classroom – I mean, I would suspect that simply using it more frequently and getting people used to hearing it would do the trick, although if someone is already vehemently opposed to it – say, for example, they’re already specifically opposed to using the singular “they” – then I guess you might need to give them actual reasons for using it instead of simply continuing to use it and letting them stew in frustration! This is all kind of theoretical for me since I don’t remember a time when I was ever bothered by gender-neutral language or the singular “they,” so I don’t know how to get people on board who are bothered by it. But for people who aren’t bothered by it, but just aren’t used to it, I suspect that they’d get used to it fairly quickly? And maybe more to the point, if we implement gender-neutral language in as many classrooms as possible now (particularly beginner classrooms, I suppose), then we’ll have a whole generation of beginner dancers who will never have an issue with gender-neutral language in classrooms because that’s already what they’re used to. Oh, and if that’s what they’re used to, then when the time comes for *them* to teach, it won’t be difficult for them to use gender-neutral language; it will just be a habit.
        As I said, some of this is theoretical for me. I have a very specific perspective and initially learned to dance in a completely ambi setting with completely gender-neutral language in classrooms, so I’m often not very good at understanding folks coming from different dance backgrounds and perspectives. But, as someone coming from this perspective, using gender neutral language when I’m teaching requires no focus whatsoever. It’s just what I do. (Which is good because I don’t actually have that much experience teaching, and I need all the focus I can muster, haha.) Granted, I also only teach ambi classes, so it would be pretty ridiculous for me to say “she” and “he” because I would be completely incorrect for about half the people in the classroom at any given time. But I think I wouldn’t have a problem with it in a non-ambi class either.

        This is a different topic entirely, but I’m very interested in the encouraging-other-people-to-become-ambi discussion. Over time I’ve become sort of afraid of being seen as too much of an ambi evangelist and not being taken seriously, so I never really say things like “everyone should learn both roles” or “women should learn to lead” or etc. To be clear, I don’t really disagree or agree with saying those, I just don’t do it myself. (As a side note, I would personally always say the first (“everyone should learn…”) rather than the second (“women/men should learn…), but I understand your point in this post about how generalizing makes everyone feel like they’re not the ones being encouraged, and heck, I think it’s nice when different people are using different strategies to accomplish the same thing. Then everyone can compare notes afterwards. And like, different things work for different people, so one of those statements might reach different people / accomplish different things than the other, and vice versa.)
        I guess I sort of worry about pressuring people; after all, at the end of the day, learning just one role is a valid choice, and I don’t want people to feel that I’m judging them for only knowing one. Do you have thoughts on this?
        I know that many people are interested in learning both roles but are scared for one reason or another. Those folks could definitely use encouragement, and I try to provide that. I ask everyone I dance with, “Would you like to lead or follow (or both)?”, and if they say, “well, I’m not that good at [role] so why don’t I [other role],” I’ll say something like, “oh, but I would be so happy to help you practice [role]!”, and they’ll take me up on it about half the time. Sometimes they’ll say something like, “Oh, I don’t know how to lead,” and my comeback at this point, which I think is pretty good, is, “Oh, would you like to learn? Or not right now?” because it gets them off the hook if they don’t want to right now, but also lets them know that I, for one, totally believe that they can learn in the future even if now is not a good time. (Now that I think about it, it doesn’t leave them any room to admit that they don’t ever want to learn to lead, if that’s the case… maybe I should rethink it. But I do think that saying “I don’t know how to lead” as opposed to “I don’t lead” indicates some interest in learning.) It also lets them know that I think now is as good a time as any for them to start. (I typically don’t actually “teach” if they take me up on this offer; we just dance together with them in the role they want to work on, and I smile at them a lot haha (I get so excited about people trying new things!!). That seems to work for a lot of people; I’m just being their guinea pig. But when they have questions I answer them.)
        I think a lot of people buy into the idea that you should learn one role really well before learning the other role, and I try to correct this as often as I can. Sometimes when I ask “lead or follow?” someone will say “oh, you must be really good if you’re asking that” and I’m like “oh no! I learned both roles at the same time. I’ve been asking this question since I was a beginner.” And hopefully that helps people realize that they can learn both, too, even if they just started.
        Anyway! Just curious as to your thoughts, specifically on giving everyone a blanket encouragement to learn both roles (which is admittedly way faster at getting the message out than my methods, haha).

  3. 5 June 2016 at 2:01 am

    I think that the only ways to encourage others to be ambidancetrous are to lead by example (not to be confused with leading in dance!), to verbally invite people to dance their non-normal role, and to offer opportunities for people to learn when we can. You’re right that we can’t (and shouldn’t) force dancing both roles on anyone — that’s not the point of dance. But creating a welcoming environment and treating it as normal (and not special) are two things we can do to give everyone the chance to try it out.

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