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A while back it was asked if a title (e.g. Mr./Ms.) should be used when e-mailing a prospective employer. The accepted answer stated that, at least in the United States, it's best to err on the side of conservatism and use a title until you get a feel for whether or not the are okay with you addressing them by their first name.

This is all well and good, but what happens if you can't determine if the prospective employer is a man or woman because their name is unisex? For instance, imagine getting a followup e-mail from "Sam Doe". The name "Sam" can be short for either the masculine "Samuel" or the feminine "Samantha". As such, I don't know if "Sam" is a man or a woman (and because this is an e-mail, the name is all I have), thus I would not know whether I should address them as Mr. Doe or Ms. Doe.

How should I address this person in a reply? Should I guess the gender of the person and use a title (e.g. addressing them as Mr. Doe and hoping that they will correct me if the person is a woman) or should I just not use a title and address them by their first name until I know?

For the sake of simplicity, let's assume that this is in the United States and that the person is either a man who is alright being called "Mr." or a woman is who alright being called "Ms.", thus the only issue is the fact that their name doesn't indicate which of the two they are.

  • While the need for a title is debatable, let's assume that we do want to use it if possible, as the accepted answer from the linked question said we should. – Thunderforge Sep 5 '14 at 13:48
  • Someone should turn this around: If my first name is Sam, should I indicate whether I want to be addressed as Mr, Mrs, Ms or Miss? (I happen to have one male and one female colleague with the same first name and didn't realise one was female until I met her in person!) – gnasher729 Sep 9 '14 at 16:09
  • @gnasher729 Feel free to ask that in a new question :-) – Thunderforge Sep 9 '14 at 19:14
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    @VietnhiPhuvan Professionalism is professional ettiquette. Which is different than social ettiquette. I can understand that why that would not make sense to you. The community has also already decided that we want to use this tag. If you do not like that take it to meta. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Sep 11 '14 at 14:55
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My first inclination would be to look on-line and see if there is some on-line presence that can tell me a gender like LinkedIn, Facebook or other sites where someone may have this information listed or a photo that enables me to have some confidence to make a guess given the other assumptions in this.

If that research doesn't provide me anything useful, then I would likely go with the first name and hope this is acceptable though this is a backup plan as lots of professionals will have on-line profiles that I could view.

  • In this vein if I am responding to the Help Desk I write Dear Help Desk. – RedSonja May 13 '15 at 7:28
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If I don't know, I always indicate that by using both terms. Anything like:

Dear Mr., Mrs. SoAndSo
Dear Mr./Mrs. SoAndSo
Dear Sir or Madam (if not using the name is OK)
Geachte meneer, mevrouw Jansen (Dutch)

This also gives a subtle hint that their gender is not clear in their correspondence.

I have been told by people more 'literate' than I am ;-) that using the comma is better than the slash (looks too 'technical'). AFAIK This may differ between countries/regions.

Better to indicate you're not sure, than using the wrong title, which some people may not like.

[Note that this is a variation on using Ms./Mrs. when in doubt]

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    I always thought the Ms. was the in-doubt choice versus a Mrs. or Miss. (i.e. the marriage state is in question). Am I out of touch? – CGCampbell Sep 5 '14 at 19:21
  • @CGCampbell It looks as if Mrs. is the one to use when in doubt but I'm not English and I have no idea if there may be a difference between UK and US. – Jan Doggen Sep 6 '14 at 9:02
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The best approach is to not risk offending the person.

In this case, that means not using a gender-specific honorific, as most people are understandably ... "attached" to being referred by the gender pronoun they prefer. Men generally don't like being referred to as women, women generally don't like being referred to as men, and almost no one likes the implication that their gender identity is unclear.

So, in this case, you can basically either not use a salutation, or use a salutation wihtout an honorific when addressing this person until you know their gender. Your other options, like using "Sir or Madam" or "Mr./Mrs." make you sound like a form letter, or run the risk of referencing the person using the wrong gender, and therefore, ought to be avoided.

My choice would probably be to start the email out a brief sentence that makes no reference to the person's name (such as "Thank you so much for your time...") which I would use as or in place of a salutation, or use their first and last names and no honorific in or as a salutation (such as "Dear Sam Doe" or just "Sam Doe").

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I would suggest starting with "Good morning." or "Good afternoon."

If you are not on "personal" terms with this person, yet (meaning you've agreed to use first names), then you still want to maintain some formality in your communications. Those are certainly acceptable greetings, and they don't require you do know the gender or specific honorifics (Dr., The Honorable, etc.) the person may have.

I don't agree that email is "always" informal. Email can certainly be used that way between friends and close colleagues, but in my opinion, Instant Messaging should be used for non-formal communications. Email is the modern-day equivalent of the business letter, and should be formatted as such.

Familiarity (use of first name) is a courtesy extended once mutual respect has been established. Once you've demonstrated a lack of respect towards someone, it can take a lifetime to recover.

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There are several possibilities, for example

Dear Ms. Doe or Dear Mr. Doe:

or

Dear Sir or Madam:

Note: Maybe you want to omit the colons after the salutation. As far as I know the colons are used in American English. They are not used in British English.

Depending on the purpose of the email or letter and whether you really care about knowing how to correctly address this person, you could

  • give this person a short call to clarify this before writing the letter. This would leave a good impression if the email/letter is for example about a job application.
  • add a postscript to your email/letter to ask for clarification, for example:

    PS Would you be so kind and tell me how I should address you correctly in future emails [or letters]? Thank you.

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The best option, if you're unable to find this information online, is to ring up the company to find out, just like you would when finding out the name of the person to send your job application to. I would say something along these lines:

Hello, I am applying for a job with your company. My application should be sent to Sam Doe, would you be able to tell me if I should address them as Mr Doe, Ms Doe, or something else?

Assuming the person who answers the phone isn't the person you'll be emailing, they would (in most cases) be happy to give you this information.

An alternative approach would be to ask to speak to the relevant person about the job. This will obviously tell you what their gender is, but it has the added benefit of showing that you are genuinely interested in the role.

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Be cautious in using this, but Mx. (pronounced mux or mix) has been used by some as a gender neutral title, unlike Mr./Mrs. which generally excludes nonbinary people. With this, you could start your letter

Dear Mx. Smith,

Be very careful when using this, though. It's very rare and could easily look like a thoughtless typo.

Other gender-neutral titles can be found here.

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