I recently attended a conference, and they asked me to change my behavior. I knew I should change my behavior, and I knew that if I made the changes I was being asked to make, positive things would happen as a result. But the change I was being asked to make was hard. I didn’t want to do it.
First, I was asked to attach a ribbon to my conference name tag that indicated my preferred gender pronoun. As our society has become more aware of and sensitive to people who identify with a gender that is not exclusively masculine or feminine, simple methods like a name tag ribbon help to provide a comfortable and safe space for everyone. However, I did not attach the ribbon.
With my bald head and gray beard, I reasoned there could no confusion as to what gender pronoun I preferred. The prospect of wearing the ribbon made me feel uncomfortable, and I was not worried that someone may identify me as anything other than the middle-aged, short, bald man that I am.
The conference also made several of the facility bathrooms unisex. Anybody could use any bathroom. I found myself uncomfortable at the prospect of sharing a bathroom with members of the opposite sex. This discomfort was completely self-imposed.
Of course, I was wrong, on both counts. The gender pronoun ribbon was not for me to feel comfortable, but rather for other people to feel comfortable. For those people who identify as something other than their birth gender, the pronoun ribbon was an act of support and community. If I had worn the ribbon, maybe they would have thought that there was another person at the conference who was friendly, supportive and empathetic. The unisex bathrooms, I should have reminded myself, were in fact being used by everyone. Any discomfort I may have felt by the experience was probably shared by others. We would have gotten through it.
Changing behaviors is hard, and I was recently thinking about my experiences at the conference when I was talking to a board of directors about using Yammer as a collaboration space for their work. As I looked around the room, some people looked eager and interested while others looked upset, hostile and closed down.
It really should be no big deal, I thought to myself. I’m not asking very much. Instead of sending an email, just make a post in your Yammer network. Instead of keeping work to yourself and your small team, do your work in an open collaborative platform where others can be informed by your work, where others can contribute, and where you can save time and be more effective.
And then I heard a little voice in my head. “It’s no big deal, just wear the name tag.”
Any amount of change can be difficult. Any level of change can represent a leap of faith, a change of practice, a departure from acceptable and comfortable norms. Whether the change is something deeply and inherently personal, like gender indicators, or something work and technology related, like making a post instead of sending an email.
Change is not just about the new behavior, but also about the journey. The journey we took to the point in time we were asked to make the change, and the journey we make through the change, and the effect the change has on our lives. Maybe we need to be concentrating more on the effect and benefits of the change, rather than the change itself. Change will always be hard, but the results can be important and meaningful.
It was about two years ago that I helped to chaperone/staff a teen advocacy day in Albany, NY. In prepping for legislative visits, the youth organizers asked all (including adults) to select a wristband with our pronouns of preference and in working with small groups, introduce ourselves with name and pronoun preference. Youth lead the way. In fact, my discomfort transformed to pride when a rising voter (age 16 or 17) made her pitch for GENDA — legislation to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ individuals — as a transitioning woman. It was so compelling, her Member of the Assembly read her speech into the legislative record later that week. Face that discomfort… and thanks for your honest reactions.