Some languages are more heavily gendered than others and this can cause issues for non-binary people who speak this language who may prefer to use genderless language. New research published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that gender-neutral text in Polish, a heavily gendered language, was less comprehensible than gendered text. Further, people described with gender-neutral language were rated less favorably than people described as men or women.
People with a non-binary gender identity describe themselves as having no gender, feeling both masculine and feminine, or feeling somewhere in the middle between male and female. Because of this, non-binary people often prefer a gender-neutral pronoun (e.g., they) be used to address them. However, some languages like Polish are heavily gendered, and gender can be seen in nouns, adjectives, and adverbs – not just pronouns like in English.
Non-binary Polish people have adapted the language to use a passive voice to circumvent using a gendered word. For example, one cannot claim to be a psychologist in Polish (e.g., “I am a psychologist”) without using either the masculine or feminine form of the word psychologist. Thus, a non-binary person might say in Polish that they are a person in the psychologist profession, which is a more passive way of conveying this information.
Researchers were interested then in how this difference in language might affect how other perceive non-binary people. “While gender-fair language focuses on personal pronouns and nouns, especially professional names, we focused on omnipresent verbs,” explained study authors Karolina Hansen and Katarzyna Żółtak. “There were various reasons why we chose verbs and gender-neutral passive voice that non-binary people use: Verbs are prevalent and impossible to avoid, and both non-binary and other people use them when talking about non-binary people. We focused only on one part of speech to determine precisely what influenced how non-binary people were perceived.”
For this study, researchers recruited a sample of 130 adult participants via social media posts. Each participant was randomly assigned to read either a masculine and gender-neutral text or a feminine and gender-neutral text. The text contained either the narrator describing their day surrounded by friends or in a store answering a phone.
After reading the text, participants filled out several measures assessing the person for competency, credibility, and niceness. They were also asked to give a name to the person in the text, which was later coded for masculinity, femininity, and gender-neutrality. Participants also filled out measures assessing how much they had contact with non-heteronormative people in their lives.
Results showed that most participants gave a masculine name for the masculine text and a feminine name for the feminine text. For the gender-neutral text, most people gave a masculine name. One fourth of participants gave a feminine name and 7% of participants gave a gender-neutral name.
Results also show that the gender-neutral text was rated as less comprehensible than both the gendered texts. Similarly, participants rated the people in the masculine and feminine texts more favorably than those in the gender-neutral texts. Lastly, participants rated being less accepting of a non-binary individual as a new member of their family compared to the man or woman text. There were no differences in comprehensibility, person evaluation, or acceptance as new family member between the masculine and feminine texts.
“The current research shows that non-binary language forms, such as passive voice, are unfamiliar to most listeners or readers and are perceived as less comprehensible than gendered and active language. Furthermore, non-binary people using such language are evaluated more negatively and are socially less accepted than women and men.”
The authors do cite some limitations to this work such as the only Polish sample and the relatively high contact with non-heteronormative individuals in this sample. Future research could use other recruitment strategies to ensure a more heterogenous sample.
The study, “Social Perception of Non-Binary Individuals“, was published April 25, 2022.