Happy birthday to me! (Just sayin’.)

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.

7 Responses to “Happy birthday to me! (Just sayin’.)”

  1. 1 Olivia
    18 February 2009 at 3:14 am

    A lot of monogamous straights talk this way all the time, and it starts to get on my nerves. But if our heteronormative society leads straight people to believe their relationships are universal, why would they feel the need to clarify? Usually I avoid using pronouns as much as possible, as do many of my queer friends.

    Happy birthday (it’s mine too)!

  2. 18 February 2009 at 3:14 am

    Happy birthday!
    Well, here are my thoughts on these “starting in the middle of a conversation” folks: it was a class on diplomacy and tact in relationships, so it was probably appealing to people who have trouble with relationship communication issues in the first place. They may be more prone to speaking in a strange way, a way that doesn’t always work for them, a way that leaves things unsaid (the name of a partner, details of the nature of the relationship, etc.) — and that’s why they were drawn to coming to this class.
    Just a thought.
    By the way, I’m loving Bi Furious. Thank you!

  3. 3 DC
    18 February 2009 at 12:09 pm

    You say: “Don’t these people have different-gender friends?”, which completely makes sense to me, but I have noticed that among my straight, monogamous acquaintances, having different-gendered friends is often very unusual. In fact, I have had problems in relationships in the past because I was expected not to have different-gendered friends (and what’s more, expected to know that I shouldn’t without it being said). This puzzles me, since I don’t exactly hide the fact I’m bi…

    You could write a book about heteronormative assumptions.

  4. 18 February 2009 at 1:06 pm

    In my exercise classes, I’m the only out queer — as far as I know, all the other women are straight. (Judging by the looks I occasionally get from the older women, I’m willing to bet most of them ARE straight. But then, I’m already the weird fat chick with the tattoos, so it may just be that the older women are skeptical of me in general.) Most of them usually start off with “my husband” or more commonly “Bill” and then its henceforth assumed that any gendered pronouns are referring to their husband. So kind of a combination of what you saw and what feels normal to you.

    (Which is also normal to me when I’m in my regular social circles. The gym is as close as I get to mainstream heteronormative, and it’s definitely a shift from how my friends and I interact. Not as much of a shift as, say, corporate America, but definitely a shift.)

  5. 5 Aviva
    25 February 2009 at 3:27 pm

    Olivia — happy (belated) birthday to you, too! And you have a point. If your relationship is the default type, there must seem like less need to clarify. I would have thought that the space was queer-positive and sexually diverse enough that they’d have known better, but I guess most people just don’t stop to think about it.

    I use pronouns pretty much any chance I get, as a deliberate push for visibility. But I never do it without first referencing “my girlfriend” or “my partner” or “my date” or whatever, to let people know what conversation we’re having. I’d say “When I go out with someone and she…” but not just “Sometimes she does this thing.” Makes no sense. But I guess if you’ve never thought about heteronormativity it does.

  6. 6 Aviva
    25 February 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Amy — that’s a really good point, and one that hadn’t occurred to me. I think of diplomacy and tact as areas where even people with very good verbal skills and a clear communication style can need help, but it’s also true that it could fall into a larger set of needs around communicating clearly.

    And thanks for the birthday wishes! I’m glad you like it around here. You’re ever so welcome.

  7. 7 Aviva
    25 February 2009 at 3:38 pm

    DC, that’s a good point. I’ve never had a partner try to separate me from friends of their gender (I’ve always made clear that I don’t believe in ultimatums, and I’d ditch the person who was asking me to choose pretty much every time), but I’ve been on the other end of it and lost at least one male friend whose wife just wasn’t into letting him have female friends. It’s one of the more charming tendencies, as straightness, as far as I’m concerned. Which is not to say that some straight people aren’t totally reasonable about this and some queers don’t try to keep their partners from having friends, but…yeah. You’re right, the straight world does assume that men and women can’t just be friends with each other, and so if your partner has friends of your gender there must be something fishy going on. I find it baffling. If it were true that one can’t have platonic friends of genders one is attracted to, I’d be in really big trouble, it’s pretty much rule out having friends for me. And I just don’t have the time and energy to nurture a relationship as lovers with everyone I care deeply about. Nor could my body keep up with that amount of sex.

    Maybe someday I will write a book about heteronormative assumptions…I certainly intend to write one about bisexuality.

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