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Weblog Entry

Gender Issues

June 08, 2006

Here’s a quick social hack for you. In this ever-increasingly global village we’re living in, having to grapple with foreign names is becoming a lot more common. Especially online, one of the more frequent problems I run into is determining gender based on a name, without even a voice to help clarify.

Google to the rescue. I’ve found that dropping the first name in Google Image Search often answers the question for me. Not 100% of the time, and I’m still loathe to use a gender-specific pronoun without further investigation, but it’s a good guess most of the time.

Now if I could just keep track of which cultures place their family name on the left instead of the right…

June 08, 11h

I’d take a foreign name any day over trying to figure out if I should be asking for a Mr. or Mrs. _____ when dealing with people whose first names are gender-ambiguous (Casey, Jamie, Dave, etc.)

J.D. says:
June 08, 11h

Never thought of doing that. Very clever little tip!

June 08, 12h

Doesn’t work. At least not for me. Full name might.

June 08, 12h

Hehehe, I was just called a “her” when obviously I’m a “him”. ;-)

Natalie says:
June 08, 12h

Well, Ara, alot of “A” names similar to yours are girl names, like Aria or Ariana, etc. In fact, I’ll admit, I thought you were a girl before I saw your about page, but that’s why I checked. :)

Actually, I’m glad to see a post about this because one of my clients is a Kris and for the longest time I was dying to ask, but couldn’t think of a polite way to do that. I know a lot of gals spell their name with a K but then there’s Kris Kristofferson (sp?) so who knows. Turns out the full name is Kristofer. :)

A phone call doesn’t always work because I’ve known some girlie sounding guys and some scruffy smoky sounding gals.

peter says:
June 08, 13h

I am a woman – and for the life of me I will never understand why my parents named me “Peter”

June 08, 13h

Natalie: You know, I find that just coming out and asking sometimes works equally well. You know saying something like: “this is a little embarrassing but would you mind if I asked your gender as it’s kind of tough to tell from your name?”

This same sort of awkward thing happens when I run into people I don’t always see and forget their names. I find that getting over the awkwardness quickly, early on in the encounter just by asking works well. Especially if you’re apologetic about it.

June 08, 14h

Ara: According to Google Image Search, you are neither man, nor woman, but parrot -

June 08, 15h

Who cares if an online persona is a girl or a guy? Doesn’t it matter more how that person acts, what they say?

But it’s funny that you should post about this. I ran a test in an online (counter-strike) community. For about a year they had no idea whether I was a girl or a guy, as I refused to tell them.

Interestingly enough they all thought I was a girl as I was so ‘shy’, and almost instantly everyone was incredibly nice to me. Eventually I agreed to tell them my name if they guessed it correctly, and when they eventually did, I told them it and no harm done. (and yes, still loved)

I do wonder however, if I’d have gotten as much attention if I’d given them my name immediately…

June 08, 15h

Also, somehow people are even getting last names as their first in the U.S. McKenzie as a first name? Come on!

June 08, 15h

“Who cares if an online persona is a girl or a guy? Doesn’t it matter more how that person acts, what they say?”

When you have to do business with people, call them on the phone, etc., their gender becomes important so you don’t refer to him as a her or Mr. as a Ms.

Dave S. says:
June 08, 15h

“Who cares if an online persona is a girl or a guy? Doesn’t it matter more how that person acts, what they say?”

Please, let’s not get started on THAT debate, the post wasn’t geared toward any sort of equality issues.

Tom’s follow-up comment was spot on. Pronouns matter in business.

Sean says:
June 08, 16h

Forget exotic-sounding names (especially to our anglophonic ears), what about common, yet gender-neutral ones? Some have already been mentioned, like Kris or Jamie or Casey, then there’s the likes of Shannon, Leslie, Alex, Devin… and on, and on, and on.

What I find just as hard is the creative spelling of names now. Amy or Aimee? Casey or Kacy? Heck, let’s look at my name: the one year I played basketball for my school, there was a Sean, a Shaun, and a Shawn on the team. It can be just as offensive to misspell someone’s name as to precede it with the wrong pronoun.

Who knew that nomenclature would be such a minefield?

June 08, 17h

Peter: Even though your name isn’t Peter (followed your link to your site), Petra (the original form of the name) has been used for women as well as men. So yeah, that would explain why you were named “Peter”.

Alan: Yep, heard that one many times.

Adam Schilling says:
June 08, 22h

Hm, sounds like we need to build gender and a family name preference (based on culture, or other reason) into the hCard microformat.

Mark Stephenson says:
June 09, 00h

Great tip!

I’ve just checked myself out and can indeed confirm that I am male, but I never realised Marks were so geeky looking!

Tommy Olsson says:
June 09, 00h

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just drop those titles (as we did a long time ago in Sweden) and if there were some gender-neutral pronouns that we could use?

j0sh says:
June 09, 04h

As for pronouns that matter in business. I had a programer friend ones who had a female client on the phone, unfortunately for her she had a deep voice and a male like name (Charli without the E - think short for Charlotte), my friend refered to her as Mr. most of the time - he found out the truth when he went on a meeting with her… Good thing she didn’t take it wrongly.

June 09, 05h

When I put my name into Google Images, I learn that I am several different people (all male but none of them me), two sleeping cats, a bus, an alien monster, a 6th-century tomb and a gazebo.

Does anyone know the proper way to address a gazebo?

Trent says:
June 09, 06h

This idea has been mentioned before:

Dre says:
June 09, 06h

“Pronouns matter in business.”

You dont want to upset a client. because you address the person directly (some could take it the wrong way)

You use formal language.

A business letter does have an exception, if you dont know the person and you address the company itself you would do properly:

Dear Sirs,
Dear Madams,

But this is mostly reduced to
Dear Sirs (companies are regarded as male?)

June 09, 07h

I find “To whom it may concern” gets around this, it does make my spoken conversations last twice as long as necessary though. Maybe I’ll just use “Oi!” in future.

Marcel says:
June 09, 08h

Well subconsciously I tend to “grade” a name on how likely it is to be either male or female. In Anne’s case (and being Dutch of origin myself), his name is more commonly used for females. If I would not know he was male I’d address him as a female. And I guess he’s used to that ;)

Another example may be Casey. This is a 50/50 shot - I’m fully aware there are both male and female people with this as their first name. What’s to stop me from addressing them as “Dear Casey Lastname” or “Mrs. or Mrs. Casey Lastname”?

As a sidenote, it’s sometimes even a good way to break the ice on the phone if you make a mistake like this. I’ve never met someone who was offended by my mistake, and after correcting myself the talk automatically becomes a tad less “business”-like.

Tara says:
June 09, 10h

Ara - Thank your lucky stars you came up a parrot on Google.

I’m a three way toss up between a porn star, a large stone phallus and a goddess.

And while there is an eery connection between all three, none of them have anything to do with me.

(s says:
June 09, 13h

The google image search thing got me wondering, “Hmm … le tme try Jaime and see what pops up.” I saw a woman in a swimsuit, a naked woman, and then I had to close my browser — work beckoned :-).

Matt says:
June 09, 21h

What works best? Give someone in the company a call. Secretaries/switchboard operators will understand why you’re making the call. Just calling to check, you’ll say. We get it all the time, they’ll say. When sending out résumés, it’s nice to know. Same goes for Ms. vs. Mrs.

Also, if you are sneaky and sure they don’t have caller I.D., try also calling their office in the middle of the night. You can sometimes get their voicemail names. Not always going to work nor can you tell from everyone’s voice everytime, but it’s a shot. Beats that shock of when you meet face-to-face for the first time.

June 12, 09h

Unfortunately (?) there are way more pictures of women on the internet than men. _(shocked, aren’t you?)_
So this tip might be a bit gender biased toward women. ;)

June 13, 11h

Tara: LOL! At the very least I hope you’re female (since the only uses of the name Tara that I’ve heard were for women’s names).

France says:
June 13, 11h

Both my wife and I have gender-neutral names - Francis, Jamie. We mess with telemarketers all the time… “Is Ms. Jamie Rupert there?” “This is he.” “Oh… uh… hi Mr. Rupert…”

To save our daughter such annoyances, we named her the girliest name ever, Emily. Funny enough, it wasn’t until after we named her we found out it was the most popular name of the past few years. Eh well.

June 14, 03h

“Please, let’s not get started on THAT debate, the post wasn’t geared toward any sort of equality issues.”

Oh well excuse me!

“Tom’s follow-up comment was spot on. Pronouns matter in business.”

So why don’t you just ask them?

Sean says:
June 14, 14h

Tom – I now want to start all of my correspondence with “Oi!”

Or if I have to Americanize it for some audiences: “Yo!”

Chris says:
June 20, 06h

My name is Chris and I am a male. It wasn’t until very recently that I started getting correspondence assuming I am female. Maybe that is an indication that the Christines of the world are starting to outnumber the Christophers.

I wonder if any telemarketing company has a database full of the gender percentages a certain name is. That way when they come across a Chris they know there is a “59%” chance it’s a male.

I also agree with the above comments that getting it right is very important in business. I was immediately turned off by the businesses that got it wrong.

zro says:
June 20, 14h

We should be pressing toward language 2.0 and promoting the use of gender free pronouns…

June 20, 14h

I’ve come across those problems before. But great solution! I’ll have to use that in the future.

dandyna says:
June 23, 02h

for what I am concerned, only korean people put the family name before the first name. But i am a bit ignorant I have to say :)

kim says:
June 23, 19h

Great trick I never thought about searching my images that way. And I’am happy to report it worked when I searched for me.

Trace says:
June 26, 19h

Interesting subject. As a male with an unusual name I’ve dealt with this a lot. People I haven’t met but have had occasion to correspond with in writing often assume that I am female.

Unfortunately for those wanting to use this tip to determine my gender, Google shows a bunch of fiery planets and a couple of southern roads. Fortunately for me I’m OK with androgyny. But the situation does say something about the prevalence of preconception.

Jessica says:
June 26, 22h

Very cool idea, thanks! I just figure it is better to try and leave out the sir or miss / mrs when dealing with the unkown. But you have found a way to match up some that I had never considered!

Berna says:
June 28, 07h

Dandyna said: “for what I am concerned, only korean people put the family name before the first name.”

They do that also in Japan and Hungary.

(I’m female, BTW)

Bob Sutton says:
June 28, 12h

Tommy Olsson says:

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just drop those titles (as we did a long time ago in Sweden) and if there were some gender-neutral pronouns that we could use?

If this is webbie insider dope that I missed somewhere, I’m sorry. Why are we ashamed that our languages contain gender cues?

In English, ‘it’ seems to meet the bill, but applying that pronoun to people implies more specific knowledge of their plumbing than I’d care to risk.

As for gender-neutral language generally, has anyone told the French or Italians?

And more importantly for this correspondence, perhaps ‘it’ can tell me if ‘Olsdottir’ and ‘Olsson’ are interchangeable where ‘it’ lives?

Bob Sutton

Lee says:
July 06, 03h

Being named Lee, I frequently get sex-targeted junk email and snail mail assuming female, but I can assure you that I am quite definately male. I’m not really offended by it, but I would have more confidence in a company that did the research to find out before the fact.

Google Images gives me a real weird collection, from Bruce Lee to a female nude using a vacuum cleaner as a breast pump.

BTW, in informal business correspondance, such as email, it is quite acceptable to greet as:


Jordan says:
July 06, 13h

It’s only going to get more complicated. I’ve been designing an internal database for an organisation in the UK for the past three months. Two months into the project, someone points out that I should have included “other” as a gender; fortunately, it wasn’t too much of a coding challenge. However, when they later started discussing “both,” “neither” and “undecided”, I stood firm that if someone didn’t feel up to choosing today, then they could just stick with other until they could. While gender is a social construct, their database back-end is currently my construct and I didn’t count on that level of polymorphism!

More worryingly for business people, one wonders what to use as a courtesy title for these “others”…

Vafa says:
July 11, 04h

very nice topic. This is my everyday problem. Usually i try to ask very politely. but the solution here worked very good for me, serch in google images.
but remember some names, like mine, is used for both males and females. ( I am male anyways). and you should know from where he or she is.

I enjoyed this topic

Zach says:
July 17, 13h

That is a really clever idea. Thanks :)

Mody says:
July 31, 04h

A person’s gender can be easily discovered regardless of what kind of names is used in the hyper space, nature is nature, no matter of pretending attempts that person is trying to imply the opposite gender, through his / her words.

Kishore says:
August 12, 03h

That’s a neat way, and I have tried it in the past. But I see that most of the times, it is the obscure names that I am having trouble with, and so far, as fate would have it, Google has not been too helpful for me in such cases.

And also, there are certain names which are common for both male and female in Asia, and if you come across such names, then that’s it. No other way of finding it out other than asking the person yourself.