Intersections | Improve your Customer Service Skills: Go Gender Neutral!

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By Micah Kehrein ( | At the beginning of 2016, the American Dialect Society announced that the word of the year is the singular ‘they.’ For me, this was really exciting, because “they” is my gender pronoun, and over the 5 years that I have asked folks to use this pronoun for me, I’ve definitely heard my fair share of “It’s not proper grammar.” Not anymore, folks! But back to the reason for this blog post, they is a really useful word for library employees and really, folks in customer service in any profession.

Gender Pronouns - IntersectionsAs a genderqueer individual, I think a lot about the way the world genders everything: from toys to books to clothes, we’ve been socialized to see things as either masculine or feminine. As professionals that interact with the public, we regularly gender people as we assist them. For many of our patrons, the assumptions we make about their genders are accurate. However, this is not always the case. By relying on our assumptions about gender, we can inadvertently misgender, or use a word or pronoun that does not correctly reflect the gender with which an individual identifies, our patrons. This is more harmful than simply misspeaking as it disregards and disrespects peoples’ identities. hello%20there

Using less gendered language when working with and describing our patrons creates an environment that is more welcoming of gender diversity. Unless a patron has explicitly told us how they identify, we really do not know if the words we are using are an accurate way to gender them. As I mentioned before, we are often accurate in our guesses; however, I assert that the mistakes we make are significantly damaging microaggressions to a subset of our patrons, and thus we should adopt more gender neutral language when interacting with folks at the library. I know that it can be a little mind boggling to find new gender neutral phrases, so I created a list of some of my favorite gender-less library phrases.

Instead of…


Hello, ma’am/sir.

Hello there.

Hello friend. (for our very young patrons!)

Did you help her?

Did you help that patron?

Did you help them?

Did you help that person in the green jacket?

Your baby girl is so cute!

Your little library friend is so cute!

She would like to get a new library card.

This patron would like to get a new library card.

Did you ladies/guys find everything alright?

Did you all find everything alright?

Did you folks find everything alright?

Did everyone find everything alright?

Does your little sister want a sticker too?

Does your sibling want a sticker too?

Does your buddy want a sticker too?

theyThese small changes in how we speak about our patrons help make Seattle Public Library a more inclusive, safe space for our patrons. As an active member of the local LGBT community, I hear a lot of love for SPL, the work that we do to make sure that our collection is representative of the community, and our presence at local events like Trans Pride. Our interactions with patrons in our branches can either strengthen or destroy that hard earned reputation. And if you make a mistake, do not fear! A short, genuine apology goes a long way. Let’s be innovative and use words that welcome all folks, friends!

“To be a librarian is not to be neutral, or passive, or waiting for a question. It is to be a radical positive change agent within your community.” R. David Lankes

Micah Kehrein works as a circulation clerk at The Seattle Public Library.