I went to a class on Friday on diplomacy and tact in relationships, as part of a conference I was attending. And then, of course, I was too busy being at a conference to post about it (and too busy last night sleeping 14 hours and recovering). But I noticed something really odd.
Because the class was about communication within relationships, it made sense that nearly all of the people who asked questions or participated in discussion referenced a partner. But the way they did so really threw me. Everyone who spoke up talked about a partner of a different gender, which for me is always startling enough. And with one exception, all of them did so without naming their relationship. They just dove right in with the pronouns. So, for example, a woman would raise her hand and say “It really drives him nuts when he can tell from my body language that I’m exasperated but I won’t talk to him about it.” Without ever saying “my partner” or “my husband” or “my boyfriend.” It was jarring. It felt both heteronormative and like starting a conversation in the middle. And, as a friend pointed out, it positions monogamy as normative as well.
It’s possible I marked this because it’s unusual. In part, it just felt like bad writing. It’s all wrong to use a pronoun that doesn’t refer back to anything. The natural response to someone starting to speak with “She thinks…” is “she who?” Because we haven’t been told yet. So maybe this is not indicative of a larger trend, only that I was in a room full of crazy people who aren’t great with language.
But that’s part of what heteronormativity is about for me. Everyone in that room was assuming that all I needed to know was that they were talking about someone of another gender, and I’d know we were discussing their partner. (Don’t these people have different-gender friends? Is their partner the only man/woman they ever talk about?) Whereas I would never speak of anyone I was seeing without mentioning who exactly it was. When I talk about Girlfriend, Esq. (which I do, um, way too much) I say “my girlfriend” before I start referring to her as “she.” With people who already know her or know of her I use her name, but I still let them know who I’m talking about rather than making them figure it out from context. And if I’m not talking about Girlfriend, Esq. I make it even more clear. Even if the descriptor is just “the guy I hooked up with this weekend,” I give one before moving on to the pronouns. Hell, with some people I never move on to pronouns.
A friend pointed out that it’s also a very monogamous way to speak. It assumes that there’s one serious relationship in people’s lives, and so all we need to know is that they’re talking about a partner. Then we’ll automatically know which partner and what place they hold in the speaker’s life. We won’t need to be told which partner, because people only have one, right? Which is extra weird, since even monogamous people could be in a new relationship, and established marriage, or anywhere in between. But no, apparently the gender of the person being talked about should be all I need in order to infer everything else I need to know. It should be the only context I require. I must have missed the memo on how to do that.
Come to think of it, because of where I was sitting I couldn’t always see the person who was speaking. So the “him” could have been paired with a nod of the head to the man next to the woman who was speaking, and no one else would have found the phrasing odd. But even that seems like it would come with a slight emphasis that I would have heard. I’m fairly good at picking up things like that in people’s voices. Instead I felt like everyone had started talking in the middle of their thought.
What do you think? Are these people weird? Am I crazy? Is this just the way people talk, and I’ve never noticed? Is it just the way straight people talk, and I’ve been surrounding myself with queers so long that I’ve forgotten? ‘Cause I found it really, really weird, and as far as I know I’m the only one who did.