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When communicating with foreign cultures, the gender of the addressed person is not always clear from the name. What would be a professional way to address someone in this situation. (Dear Mr or Ms SomeForeignName looks awkward).

A hack I generally use is to do a google image search for the name, but this isn't always accurate in all cultures. What's the solution here?

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See these threads for more information on what is going on: english.stackexchange.com/questions/1059/… , english.stackexchange.com/questions/48/gender-neutral-pronoun –  Kosmonaut Sep 1 '10 at 15:21
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Google can't help you with "Pat Smith" unless you have additional information to narrow the search. Even then, some people won't be listed or the picture could even be ambiguous (there was a series of Saturday Night Live skits about this). –  Dennis Williamson Sep 1 '10 at 21:59

5 Answers 5

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Working part-time in customer support, I have to deal with the same situation very often, and I often have to google for "awkward" names, too. What I usually end up with when nothing helps, is either of the following:

  • I just drop the "Mr/Ms" altogether. "Dear Maria Cannavaro", "Dear Wei Li", etc.
  • If the person is located in the US, I assume that they do not object to being addressed by their first name. "Dear Maria", "Dear Alex".

Also, I might sometimes use a simple "Hi there" or "Hi", but usually only if the person has previously contacted me using a similar informal address.

Lastly, sometimes people do ask me for a license key in a formal, polite way, but sign as "B. Smith". In that case, they either don't really care how I address them, or they don't want me to figure out their gender or full name for some reason, which I must respect. Not one of these people has ever objected to my use of "hi".

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I just wanted to start a reply to an email with "Thank you very much <title> <lastname> for ......" A name just wont cut it in this case. Anyway google images gave me a positive id on the recipient's gender. It was a woman –  Midhat Sep 1 '10 at 17:21
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@Midhat: way to go! However, if Google had failed, I would see no problem with rewording it as "Dear <firstname>, thank you very much for ...". –  RegDwigнt Sep 1 '10 at 18:02
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I always worry that I'm using the wrong name with cultures I'm unfamiliar with -- that the family name comes first and my attempts to say "Hi Mike" actually say "Hi Jones." I've become a big fan of the full name ("Dear Wei Li") when I'm not sure. –  J.T. Grimes Sep 1 '10 at 18:51

For Wei Li, I would not break up the name and say Dear Wei or Dear Li, because some people use reverse order with surname first, and some people have compound names.

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When faced with this problem in an email (my most normal scenario), I look at the signature and use that to address the person.

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If you are lucky there may be a title you can choose. "Dear Professor Doe" is safe for either gender. Likewise of "Doctor" (either the academic or the medical/veterinary/dental variety), and for military, police or clerical ranks.

Failing that I go with "Dear Full Name" as others have suggested, as it contains nothing that might offend and still conveys a basic degree of formality and respect.

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Even if there isn’t a title, you can fake it and use one. In most contexts, people will not be offended if you mistakenly address them them “Dr.” — certainly less offended then if you accidentally mis-gender them! –  PLL Apr 11 '11 at 2:53

Given our construction of gender, 'tis usually a far greater sin to falsely assign a gender than to avoid formal address.

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This gotta be a comment, not a real answer. But yeah. I agree –  Midhat Sep 2 '10 at 17:27
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@Midhat: This answers the question, albeit obliquely. Leave out the gender if it's unknown. Don't try to address the issue unless you can positively ID the person. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Sep 3 '10 at 14:12

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