On email signatures

Should I include my pronouns?

“He, him, his.

“She, her, hers.

“They, them, theirs,” chanted the schoolchildren as they prepared for their pronouns quiz.

I’ve been thinking about email signatures. You know, that block of text automatically inserted into the bottom of all your emails with your name and contact information. Yeah. That.

You may or may not have a very long email signature. (You probably do if your employer has a branding guide, and the guide has several hundreds words to say on how to format email signatures.)

I don’t want to pass judgement on how you end your emails, but I started to think there may be a problem with mine after I realized there were usually more words in my automated signature than in the actual body of my email messages.

Am I putting in too much information? Does it seem like that I’m trying to show off how much work I can do? Am I complicit in contributing to an overburdened, overstretched campus work culture?

(I want to do none of these things.)

People Who Email Me Keep Assuming I’m A Man. How Do I Tell Them I’m Not?

James Smith (he/him/his)

Several people at Northwestern, including some of my friends, include pronouns as part of their signatures.

Usually, it’s buried in the middle of their list of expansive contact information, along with their own email address (because the From: field wasn’t enough), office phone number (actually useful), office address (I thought we were sending emails, not letters), and the words “Northwestern University” in branding colors (okay, branding guidelines, now you’re just wasting space).

This group doesn’t just include those at Campus Inclusion and Community, but also a small group of students and staff across the entire university; yet, it’s still a tiny enough number that I notice whenever somebody does do it. If normalizing the inclusion of pronouns in overpacked email signatures is the goal, then we’re still a long way from the practice becoming common.

Because that is the goal, isn’t it?

We’re trying to switch away from a world where pronouns are assumed based on visible cues of gender identity (name, body shape, hair style) to an environment where we respect each other’s gender identities by not making such assumptions. Part of that means we’re creating a space — and normalcy — for people to decide their own pronouns, as opposed to the rest of us deciding for them.

I think.

What about me?

I used to include my pronouns (“he, him, his”) in tiny letters underneath my name. Then I started using a new email client and created a new signature without gender pronouns. (I didn’t exclude them. I just forgot to include them.)

(Yes, to the presumable shock and horror of many working in IT support, I’m a so-called digital native who uses an email client instead of just typing ‘gmail.com’.)

I stuck with this signature for several months. But I’m now bouncing back and forth between including gender pronouns and leaving them out.

I recognise it’s a privilege for me to have other people look at me (or my name) and assume pronouns correctly, and I want to put in some effort to help people who don’t enjoy that privilege.

At the same time, I’m a cisgender man, and a part of me feels that, by doing so, I’m broadcasting my privileges; that including “(he, him, his)” at the end of my emails casually is like me saying: “this little action doesn’t hurt me at all and I’m such a good person because I’m an amazing ally to trans and gender nonconforming communities!!!

Does including gender pronouns in my emails contribute to a culture where trans and gender nonconforming individuals feel pressured? Will I therefore be complicit in creating an environment where such individuals have to choose between remaining closeted about their identities, or else outing themselves before they’re ready?

I don’t like this. I feel like I’m acting rash and disrespectfully if I do include pronouns, and I’m not doing enough to indicate my support of people in communities whose pain and suffering I can understand the most. I feel like there’s no winning solution here.

But my email signature now does say “(he/him/his)” in 8-point font, so at least I’m doing something, right?