Recent social changes are forcing us to continue to rethink our assumptions and re-frame how we ask questions and communicate. This is true in all walks of life and in all kinds of businesses, including market research. Of all the assumptions that we tend to make as a society, assumptions made based on gender seem to be among the most common. Our assumptions about gender, and about gender roles, may feel exclusionary to those who exist in a non-binary world. Non-binary, as I’ve recently learned, is the term for people who don’t identify with the male-female binary labels society has become accustomed to. How we approach people, the assumptions we come with, and how we communicate needs to reflect our awareness and respect for each other.
Gender assumptions are constantly being challenged, especially by younger generations, and I am reminded of this regularly. One of my clients released a questionnaire earlier this year that asked participants to select their gender, only to be chastised by their first respondents. The questionnaire offered the choice of male or female, and millennial and Gen X participants were incredulous that only two genders were offered as responses. Similar assumptions come up at the dinner table socially, too. At dinner recently, the woman next to me was talking about her sister’s wedding. The woman across from her asked what her sister’s husband does and how she met him, only to be told that the marriage was between two women. It’s a common assumption, but it made for an awareness-raising moment. One more example: At a school sporting event, a ten-year-old was overheard saying to a parent, “I apologize for assuming your gender.”
As we do with all aspects of our professional and personal lives, we keep learning and adapting.
What to Do
Raise your awareness – It starts with awareness of social change, of the people you’re talking to, and what the current appropriate and preferred language is. Ask questions. A lot of parents on the soccer field wanted to know more about what that ten-year-old knows.
Demonstrate sensitivity – First impressions matter, and showing up open-minded and nonjudgmental establishes comfort and trust. Display this through your body language, tone of voice, and word choices.
Ask questions – Don’t be afraid to ask good questions. It’s a way to connect as well as learn.
Practice – Listen to yourself asking questions, and listen to how other people ask questions. Practice asking non-assuming questions. When I got an email the other day from an artist friend announcing she was back from her wedding hiatus I caught myself – instead of asking who “he” is and if he is also an artist, I asked who she married and where they met.
Admit and apologize – When we realize we have asked a loaded (with assumptions) question – usually because the person has told us or their answer makes it clear – be open and quick to apologize. And then ask a question to keep the conversation and the learning going.
Keep learning – Whether it’s reading, watching, or asking questions, stay open to learning about what’s respectful, appropriate, and appreciated.
We work in the business of people, and recognizing the best ways to make them feel welcome, heard, and respected is part of doing our best work.