Gender-neutral text seen as less understandable than gendered text in Polish, study finds

Some languages ​​are more gendered than others, which can cause problems for non-binary people who speak that language and prefer to use genderless language. New research published in the Sexual Behavior Archives found that gender-neutral text in Polish, a heavily gendered language, was less understandable than gendered text. Additionally, people described with gender-neutral language were rated less favorably than people described as male or female.

People with a non-binary gender identity describe themselves as having no gender, feeling both masculine and feminine, or feeling somewhere between masculine and feminine. For this reason, non-binary people often prefer that 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 Poles have adapted the language to use a passive voice to circumvent the use of a gendered word. For example, one cannot claim to be a psychologist in Polish (eg, “I am a psychologist”) without using the masculine or feminine form of the word psychologist. So a non-binary person could say in Polish that they are a person practicing the profession of psychologist, which is a more passive way of conveying this information.

The researchers then became interested in how this difference in language might affect how others perceived non-binary people. “While gender-equitable language focuses on pronouns and personal nouns, especially professional nouns, we focused on ubiquitous verbs,” explained study authors Karolina Hansen and Katarzyna Żółtak. “There were a variety of reasons why we chose gender-neutral verbs and passive voice that non-binary people use: verbs are common and impossible to avoid, and non-binary and others use them when talking about people. non-binary. We focused on a single part of speech to determine precisely what influenced how non-binary people were perceived.

For this study, the researchers recruited a sample of 130 adult participants through social media posts. Each participant was randomly assigned to read either a male and gender-neutral text or a female and gender-neutral text. The text either contained the narrator describing their day surrounded by friends or in a store answering the phone.

After reading the text, participants completed several measures rating the person for competence, credibility, and kindness. They were also asked to name the person in the text, which was then coded for masculinity, femininity and gender neutrality. Participants also completed measures assessing how much contact they had with non-heteronormative people in their lifetime.

The results showed that most participants gave a male name for the male text and a female name for the female text. For gender-neutral text, most people gave a male name. A quarter of participants gave a female name and 7% of participants gave a gender-neutral name.

The results also show that the gender-neutral text was deemed less understandable than the two gendered texts. Similarly, participants rated people in both masculine and feminine texts more favorably than those in neutral texts. Finally, participants rated that they were less accepting of a non-binary individual as their new family member compared to male or female text. There were no differences in comprehensibility, person evaluation, or acceptance as a new family member between the male and female texts.

“Current research shows that non-binary forms of language, such as passive voice, are unfamiliar to most listeners or readers and are perceived as less understandable than gendered and active language. Additionally, non-binary people using such language are valued more negatively and are less socially accepted than women and men.

The authors 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 heterogeneous sample.

The study, “Social Perception of Non-Binary Individuals”, was published on April 25, 2022.

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