how to know/guess gender with strangers

How to Navigate Gender with Strangers 

Gender has been in the spotlight more and more over the years and many people who want to be allies struggle with navigating gender in real-life, day-to-day interactions.

How do you know what gender someone is? How do you avoid offending people when you meet them? How do you create a dynamic where non-binary and trans people feel safe opening up to you? We have a lot of practical questions.

This article will help to address the inherent challenges and opportunities of gender variance in casual encounters.

How do you know someone’s gender when you first meet?

You don’t.

In normative culture, we’re expected to just *know* someone’s gender and not knowing, or making a mistake is seen as offensive or shameful. Yet, we know that not everyone identifies with the gender they are perceived to have or that they were assigned at birth. What someone appears to be is not always who they are and there’s no way of knowing that upon first meeting them.

Even if they give you pronouns to use, those pronouns may be more reflective of their level of safety and comfort with you and the context rather than their “true” identity. There are good reasons for this and as an entirely new person in their life, you’re not entitled to know more than they’re willing to share with you.

The gender binary system as it was handed to us demands that we make a lot of assumptions and then act based on those assumptions. However, when you think deeply about it, there really isn’t much need to know someone’s gender right off the bat, unless you treat men and women differently. Consider the difference in your own behaviour when talking to a woman vs talking to a man. Invite yourself to forge a path for talking with a stranger more generally.

Do we just use ‘they’ for everyone now?

Many people these days are defaulting to using they/them pronouns for everyone unless otherwise specified. We already naturally do this to some degree. It makes a lot of sense to have a unified, agreed-upon pronoun default that isn’t gendered so that we can stop pushing gender on people.

A major failing of this approach though, is that there are plenty of people who feel very attached to their gender identity and removing their gender without their consent could be a really destabilizing experience. Think of a woman who worries about not being feminine enough to be seen as a woman, or a man who feels too effeminate to be accepted. Many trans people have fought hard to win their validity as a man or a woman and would feel slighted if they were misgendered for neutrality’s sake. Stripping these people of their gender might do just as much damage as forcing gender on someone against their will.

In these delicate days, while we are trying to respect the wide range of opinions about gender, disclaimers can be useful. Let people know that you default to gender neutrality unless told otherwise. Be aware that this genderless approach is not infallible and you still may upset a small number of people. Proceed with caution.

Gender Detective: How to determine someone’s gender

Listen to the conversation

Pros: low risk, easy to do

Cons: unreliable, won’t always work

Oftentimes, friends will refer to one another using the correct pronouns and if we listen, we can pick up on it without too much effort.

Introduce yourself with your pronouns

Pros: upfront and proactive

Cons: a bit intimidating, won’t always work

A useful approach to polite conversation is to announce your own pronouns along with your name and ask what pronouns to use for those around you. If their pronouns differ from what you might have expected, congratulations! You just avoided a potential blunder! If the pronouns are exactly what you expected, congratulations! You just framed the conversation in a way that indicates that you’re aware of and open to gender diversity while modelling good ally behaviour.

The great thing to this approach is that it removes the guesswork which will instantly reduce anxiety. It may also signal you as a safe person when it comes to gender queerness. The less great thing to this approach is that the other person may be heavily invested in the gender binary system and may now target you with their hate. Or they may take this as an invitation to question you on gender politics.

There are risks and rewards to this approach, though in my experience the rewards have outweighed the risks. The risks become much higher if your pronouns are likely to surprise people. If you’re a cis ally, your risks are pretty minimal and your actions can play a big role in shifting the normative culture around gender. If your pronoun is surprising to others, it’s a great approach to prevent future awkwardness around corrections.


Pros: Direct and to the point

Cons: Slightly more intimidating, Could offend some

It might be intimidating to ask someone’s gender, especially since normative social rules expect us to just know everyone’s gender on sight. Meeting new people comes with the benefit of forgiveness. We don’t expect people to remember our names right away. Pronouns are sort of the same deal. It’s ok to make mistakes, especially in the beginning.

It’s totally fine to say, “I think I remember that you use she/they pronouns. Is that right?” or, “I forget — which pronouns do you use?”

What if you still don’t know?

So if you don’t know someone’s pronouns or gender, and you don’t want to “they” someone who doesn’t want to be “they’d”, what do you do? You learn to be very sneakily evasive with gender.

Many people the world over, both in the past and to this day, have developed their communication skills in a way that allows them to avoid declaring a gender for someone they’re talking to or about. Often this is for safety reasons, as homosexuality and being trans is still a crime in many places and in many contexts still has the power to invite some heavy consequences.

Use the person’s name

Using someone’s name in place of a pronoun is helpful, especially if you only need to use it infrequently.

“Ron and I went to the beach today. It was Ron’s first time there.”

Use the royal “We”

To address people without gender, we can use we/us/ours to really underscore the unity we share. Westerners tend to be much more individualistic, but many are moving more towards collectivism these days. We/us/ours pronouns can help remind us of our interconnectedness.

Rearrange your sentence structure

Or you can shift around your sentence structure to avoid pronouns. Instead of saying, “Did Ron leave his/her/their/zir purse?” You could say, “Is this purse Ron’s?” If you’re finding this mental gymnastics frustrating, try thinking of it as a game. See how long you can talk about someone without revealing their gender.

Can’t you just correct me if I’m wrong?

Yes and no. There are many reasons, exhaustion being a common one among them, not to correct pronouns.

Being misgendered can elicit all sorts of emotions that will vary from person to person and from moment to moment. Sometimes just dealing with those emotions is more than enough to handle. Other times, you may feel confident and happy to correct someone without it really costing you too much personally. There are also times when the thought of correcting someone is terrifying or exhausting because you can tell that doing so will invite a conversation or reaction that you’re not ready or willing to deal with in that moment.

It’s a bit reckless to place the burden of correction on the person you’ve misgendered. Because of the added weight of being personally invested in having your identity respected in a time when it can be dangerous to be trans, non binary or even just gender non-conforming, there’s a good chance that you won’t be corrected a large proportion of the time that you misgender someone. If you want to be supportive, it’s best to be proactive.

Pronoun Examples

There are many available pronouns in English and more in other languages. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is helpful to see them in action.

It’s worth taking some time to practice using them. You might discover that you really like one and may want to use it for yourself sometimes. Or you might meet someone in the future with one of these pronouns and you’ll be a little more prepared for it.




He went to get his phone. It was his. Jay went with him.


She went to get her phone. It was hers. Jay went with her.


They went to get their phone. It was theirs. Jay went with them.


Ze went to get zir phone. It was zirs. Jay went with zim.


E went to get eir phone. It was eirs. Jay went with em.


Xe went to get xyr phone. It was xyrs. Jay went with xem.


Per went to get per phone. It was pers. Jay went with per.


Ve went to get ver phone. It was vis. Jay went with ver.


Ne went to get nir phone. It was nirs. Jay went with nem.


Sam went to get the phone. It was Sam’s. Jay went with Sam.


Moving towards a gender-liberated future

We know that rigid adherence to a binary gender essentialist model causes harm. It excludes people who fall outside of that binary and reinforces unrealistic expectations of appearance and behaviour, even for those who do exist within that binary.

Perhaps someday there might be some genderless future or a future with more diverse gender options. Right now, we live in an age where gender means a lot to a lot of people and the diversity of thoughts and opinions on the subject is pretty wild and exciting! Given that many of us are trying to find a path forward through our gender-based trauma, often without a guide, it’s going to take some time before we feel we have it all figured out if we ever do at all.

What is clear is that gender exploration is offering value to more and more people. We’re bound to make mistakes from time to time, and that’s ok. Perfectionism is a capitalist construct anyway. Accommodating people poorly is better than not accommodating at all. If we just make little tweaks to our social scripts, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and ease into our authentic selves.