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Miss Conduct

Are you a him or a her?

Writing to someone whose gender you don’t know, plus the statute of limitations on gripes.

By Robin Abrahams
November 8, 2009

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In my line of work, I am required to respond to inquiries for information, primarily by e-mail. Normally, I start every response with “Dear Mr. (or Ms. or Dr.) So-and-So.” What am I to do if the person’s gender can’t be determined by his or her name? I have been using “Dear Firstname” but feel this is too informal and unprofessional. But am I better off risking an offense by calling a woman “Mr.” or vice versa? J.D. / Ipswich I often disagree with Salon.com’s advice columnist, Cary Tennis, but I bet he and I would be unanimous on this issue: Those of us with androgynous names know we have androgynous names and don’t expect others to be able to psychically divine if we are a Mr. or Ms. (“Robin” is usually feminine in the United States but is still a going concern as a man’s name in the United Kingdom, so I get Mistered sometimes over there.) People from other countries, whose names may be gendered in their native language but which English speakers may not recognize as masculine or feminine, are also aware of that fact. Which doesn’t mean that your best alternative, when faced with a Kelly or a Kim, is to flip a coin. People understand if you can’t tell their gender, but that doesn’t mean they want you to randomly assign them one.

I, too, get a lot of e-mails from people in my line of work, and if I can’t tell by name or context what gender people are, I will either address them as “Dear Mr./Ms. Lastname” or “Dear Firstname Lastname.” If the correspondence turns out to be ongoing, the person will usually tip me off on the second go-round as to his or her gender (the most recent one put “Ms.” in parentheses after her name). No one’s been offended yet.

Recently a close friend said something that hurt my feelings. At the time I thought -- for several good reasons -- that it wasn’t worth making a fuss or risking an argument over, so I tried to just let it go. After a couple of weeks, though, I realized it was still bothering me, so I asked her by e-mail if we could talk about it. As we talked, she became very angry that I hadn’t said anything when the incident happened. Did I do something wrong here? Was my initial decision to let it go a reasonable one? Was it OK to change my mind as I recognized my real feelings? F.A. / Northampton Your behavior seems reasonable enough to me. Yes, a certain statute of limitations applies. You don’t let someone continue on and on with annoying behavior, suffering in silence, and then blow your top at him or her out of nowhere. That’s unfair. And you don’t wait 20 years to call someone out for a thoughtless comment, unless you want him or her to think you’re a wee bit touched and perhaps a little scary.

A couple of weeks, though? We don’t always know our real feelings right away, and friends should understand that. I don’t think you did anything wrong. A couple of things come to mind: It’s possible your e-mail sounded more accusatory than you meant it to. For whatever reason, e-mail almost always sounds more hostile than any other form of communication. I doubt that’s at the core of what is going on, however. You say that you had “several good reasons” for not expressing yourself in the first place, which implies that there is already some level of conflict between you and your friend. Are you worrying about a symptom when the relationship itself is diseased? Even if your timing was bad or your wording awkward, it shouldn’t be sufficient cause for extreme anger. Frankly, you come off as rather intimidated by your friend. I’d suggest you consider yourself in the clear for this particular “offense” and take a deeper look at the relationship overall.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to missconduct@globe.com. BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at boston.com/missconduct. CHAT Get advice live every first and third Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at boston.com.

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