There’s a theory in communication that when you have a conversation with someone, you adjust your style to be more like theirs, and they adjust their style to be more like yours. This phenomenon is called accommodation. For example, many people will use a higher pitch when talking with people they perceive as women and a lower pitch with people they perceive as men.
I’ve noticed that when someone greets me in a way that signals they read me as feminine—maybe using a higher pitch, maybe using a softer tone or volume, maybe calling me “miss” or “ma’am,” maybe smiling a bit more—I respond in kind. I’ve been training my voice to be more feminine, a better expression of who I am, and when people indicate that they (likely) perceive me as feminine, it’s much easier and more natural for me to use that voice. Similarly, when people indicate that they perceive me as more masculine, I tend to slip into my old voice and respond in a more reserved and masculine way. This accommodation happens subconsciously, and is at least somewhat independent of the other person’s gender: I don’t tend to think about it until after a conversation is over, when I’m anxiously replaying it in my head. And recently, I’ve found myself often using my preferred voice with men when they call me “ma’am” or “miss.”
So it seems there’s a feedback loop: To an extent, the more someone treats me as feminine, the more I present as feminine, and the more someone treats me as masculine, the more I present as masculine. In my experience, most people treat me as feminine or masculine—gender me—based on how successfully I perform femininity or masculinity in their eyes; in the extreme, some people only seem to gender me feminine if they think I’m a cis woman. So over the course of a conversation, or over multiple conversations, I will tend to live up to someone’s initial gendering of me, to some degree. I notice this most often, and most frustratingly, in interactions with colleagues and family, people who knew me before my transition and may more often see me in a masculine light. Often, after interactions with them, I’ll feel down, disappointed, maybe even a little disgusted with myself, thinking like, “no wonder they have trouble getting my pronouns right.” I want to express myself more openly around them, to feel less defensive and more free and happy and authentic, but I feel like I’m stuck in a vicious cycle. And between depression and the awful ways trans people are often portrayed our culture, I don’t generally feel like asking their help in breaking out of it.
I’m not a linguist (or communication theorist), at least not in the formal sense of going down the aisle in witches’ robes and silly hats, and there’s definitely more going on in these interactions than just accommodation. If you have any corrections, let me know! Also, please make an effort to gender people how they want to be gendered, regardless of how they present; misgendering is disrespectful and hurtful, and it can really weigh a person down. A fancy-sounding theory isn’t an excuse for mistreatment, but maybe it explains a part of why I’m having trouble showing the people important to me who they’re missing.