If you, for example, have to add a person to an application whilst that person is on the phone, how do you politely ask for that person's gender if the voice and/or name has not proven decisive?

To clarify why I posted this question on this site: I was looking for an answer within the context of the English language and usage. The given answers have proven that this question really isn't off-topic, other languages know different distinctions that are relevant to addressing this issue.

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    I'm not sure there is a polite way to ask. The least offensive way I have heard is to assume ("Mr. Smith, what is your address?" "This is Mrs. Smith and my address is...") and then to apologize if you get it wrong. – George Cummins Mar 14 '14 at 12:59
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    This is a real problem for airport screeners. – Ben Miller - Remember Monica Mar 14 '14 at 15:14
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    @Carl: When making a claim like that, you'd better back it up with more than your personal authority. – Ben Voigt Mar 14 '14 at 15:55
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    @CarlWitthoft I'm afraid that's an outdated view; sex refers to biological difference that may be genotypical or phenotypical. Gender refers to the sociological construct that individuals ascribe to. This isn't a new thing - twospirit people have existed in First Nation and Native American tribes for generations. – Dancrumb Mar 14 '14 at 16:56
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is soliciting opinions about acceptable social customs, not about the English language. – tchrist Mar 15 '14 at 14:42

Warning, large amount of explanation, if you simply are looking for the answer, skip to the next bolded area.

When asking such a question, think about all the possible outcomes and parties involved, and try to find a middle ground that has the least potential to offend all parties the least. So in this case, it's a pretty polar issue, you have typical gendered people, such as males that identify as males and females that identify as females, and atypical gendered people, such as those having undergone sex changes, those who simply prefer to be refered to as the opposite gender, those that are both male and female and so on.

Regarding typical gendered people, you have three distinct categories in regards to how they might take this question. You have those who are comfortable with their own gender and are relatively passive or supportive of gender issues. These ones are unlikely to be offended no matter how you word your question. You also have those who are not comfortable with their own gender, whether it be perhaps a male with a somewhat feminine voice or appearance, a masculine looking female or such. These ones are likely to be your toughest cookie, as it is entirely possible that no matter how well you word your question, it's entirely possible they might still be offended. This is the kind of people Kristina's question seems to be worded to specifically try and not offend, with the combination of apology and statement of obviousness. Thirdly, there are those who are comfortable with their own gender, but are against gender issues. These ones aren't likely to be offended, but may comment that such questions are ridiculous or something to similar effect.

On the other hand, there are two distinct categories I can think of in regards to how atypical gendered people may take this question. The first is atypical gendered people who understand that gender issues are an ongoing debate, and that not everyone is comfortable with atypical gendered people yet. These ones are similar to the first category of typical gendered people where they will be difficult to offend. Secondly, there are atypical gendered people who are relatively not as passive about gender issues. This category is likely to be offended by any possible cynicism or potentially negatively seen opinion about having to ask such a question.

Breaking down the possible aspects of a question, we can fairly well evaluate which category has potential in general to be offended by each aspect. Firstly we have:

"What is your gender?"

The second category of typical gendered people has a relatively high potential of being offended by this question, but this depends on how many previous questions there were and how they were worded. If there were 10-20 or so different, yet similar personal questions asked prior, it's entirely possible they may understand that you're simply going through a checklist style sheet and not be offended at all.

"Are you male or female?"

This is a wording of the question that conflicts with potentially three categories. Both categories of atypical gendered people may be offended by this, or simply unable to answer in the expected response, because, as mentioned prior, there are cases where the person doesn't necessarily fall into either category. Black and white question wording for a potentially gray answer, no matter the rarity of a gray answer should usually be avoided. In addition, this still doesn't avoid the issue of the previous question regarding the second category of typical gendered people.

"I'm sorry, but company policy dictates that we ask this question: What is your gender?"

A person who lies in the second category of atypical gender has the possibility of being offended by this, due to you apologizing for having to ask what, to them is a perfectly reasonable question. This does avoid potential issue with any typical gendered person, but it does raise another seperate issue of apologizing for carrying out a company's policy, which is generally frowned upon.

"As obvious as it may seem, company policy dictates that we ask what your gender is."

Generally, the term 'obvious' should be avoided whenever possible while asking a question. It is typically considered just as polite, if not moreso to ask a question without the word obvious than with. The word obvious implies an assumption of knowledge on one party's part or another, which is never a good thing to assume, and can lead to offending people with relative ease. The likely offended party in this case would be those in the second category of atypically gendered people.

If you simply want the answer and not the full explanation, skip to here.

Looking at all the possibilities and outcomes, there are several correct solutions, depending on you as a questioner and the format of the application questioning itself. If the application asks a large list of questions, it is relatively safe to simply ask the question in the same format as all previous questions, likely by asking: What is your gender? If you'd like, you can try and avoid more by phrasing the question like: What is your self-identified gender?, as this question makes no assumptions, nor does it sound like a question that could be easily assumed.

If you as a questioner still feel uncomfortable about asking such a question, or it is one of only a few questions, it would probably be best to preface the whole questionaire with a statement along the lines of. Company policy dictates that I have to ask you a number of certain questions to ensure our records are correct. and then simply asking What is your gender? when you get to that point in the questionaire. The benefit of this is that it absolves you of any responsibility of the questions asked, but doesn't necessarily show any disagreement with the company's policy. In addition, this avoids raising any potential issue with one specific question.

Apologies for the length of the answer, I know it should be a relatively simple issue, but with the wide variety of opinions in today's society, I feel that it's best to break down such an issue to its core. Hopefully this answers your question reasonably enough.

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    Much better answer than before. +1 for the effort. TL; DR for the length. ;-) – David M Mar 14 '14 at 17:54
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    Haha, thanks, sorta wanted to avoid such a lengthy answer, but considering the question involves a lot of psychology, some english, and even some business ethics, twas unavoidable imo. – Waterseas Mar 14 '14 at 18:00
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    Just added a 'tl dr' shortcut for people XD – Waterseas Mar 14 '14 at 18:02
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    Maybe we should simplify our lives by just asking for the sex, since sex is a biological fact, not a social construct. – Eric Wilson Mar 14 '14 at 18:35
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    +1 - a prodigious answer! I must say, however, that if someone asked me "What is your self-identified gender?" I think I might burst out laughing. – anongoodnurse Mar 16 '14 at 14:51

I totally agree that this is not really about English language usage but here's a suggestion anyway...preface the question with an apology, "I'm sorry, but I'm required to ask this question, even if it seems obvious, may I have your gender please?"

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    +1ing this, because the "I'm required to ask this" seems to be standard practice now for questions that the questioner fears might not produce a good reaction in some people. If nothing else, the person you are talking to has likely heard this line before. – T.E.D. Mar 14 '14 at 14:01
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    @EricWilson - ...so you just say up front that you have to ask all these questions. That way it covers other potentially awkward questions (income, education, age, etc.) and the cost of all those extra words is amortized over the whole form. – T.E.D. Mar 14 '14 at 18:57
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    @EricWilson "Intersex" is a thing, biologically male and female. "Other" is probably the polite way to put it. – Izkata Mar 14 '14 at 20:14
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    @EricWilson, but you're overlooking the fact that the OP's problem is arising out of those instances where the interviewer cannot tell by the person's voice whether they are a male or female. It's exactly those examples where the unusual may come into play. (And who are we to judge them for "changing their biological facts"?) – Kristina Lopez Mar 15 '14 at 2:37
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    @EricWilson Not really. The fact that sexually ambiguous individuals exist necessitates that they be considered in any comprehensive question regarding the identification of an individual as male or female. An individual with an ambiguous voice may have an ambiguous body type, and often this compounds the issue. Any answer which fails to address this possibility does not adequately address the question of how to politely ask about a person's gender. Because whether you consider it "pandering" or not, these people do exist, and one of them might be the one to which you must ask this question. – Cmillz Mar 15 '14 at 3:47

Don't over think it. As you are going through the list of questions:

Male or Female?

If they laugh, laugh with them. If they act offended, just say, "Sorry, I have to ask." with a smile in your voice.

My goal in this situation would be to not draw any extra attention to this question.

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  • When I found your recent proposal on Area 51, I was upset because I wanted to propose that :P ....went to your SE profile, and found a site that we had in common. You PWD? – Shokhet Sep 2 '14 at 23:37
  • Yes. 10 year old son, diagnosed last year. Feel free to promote the proposal. – Eric Wilson Sep 2 '14 at 23:58
  • Of course....I'm the second follower ;) – Shokhet Sep 3 '14 at 0:06
  • (My fifteenth diaversary [T1] is coming up in a few months) – Shokhet Sep 3 '14 at 0:35

The next question requires that I ask your gender. Our policy dictates that we not make assumptions, but rather to ask to avoid accidental offense.

An apology like Kristina's version is an excellent choice as well. But, I wanted to show that it is optional.

Blaming an abstract entity like the "policy" is a way to avoid sounding as though you personally doubt their gender identity. Everyone has at some point been forced to comply with a mindless policy, so it's likely a sympathetic subject for them, too.

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What title should I use, doctor, reverend, senator, representative, mister, miss, missus, brother, sister? Of course, if your caller selects a gender-neutral title, the problem is not solved.

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    ...which is why its a bad solution. – T.E.D. Mar 14 '14 at 13:30
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    Upvoted because this is actually more relevant in many cases than the gender, and (@T.E.D.) may be a good answer to the spirit if not the letter of the question. – Chris H Mar 14 '14 at 15:57
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    "What title should I use, doctor, reverend, senator, representative...?" Because women can never be (or should not be) any of those, even in 2014? – Erik Kowal May 7 '14 at 10:44

If its part of the form, just ask it like you would any of the other questions on the form.

In this day and age, its a fairly reasonable question even if you're pretty sure from the voice, because how someone identifies doesn't always match how their body is built.

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  • Ah, but how do you know the question isn’t actually asking for the person’s biological sex rather than their social gender? – tchrist Mar 15 '14 at 14:44

One thing to keep in mind : Most of the time, if you can't determine the gender of the person you can bet you're not the first one to have trouble with this in the person's life.

Some people are very easy to categorize, some aren't.

Why is this important? Because the person you're talking to probably already knows you don't know their gender before you ask. He/She knows this situation.

Knowing this, my strategy would be to not dwell on this question, to not be awkward about it. Simply ask, with your own words, in the simplest and most basic way you can. Don't apologize too much either. Don't make a big deal about it. It might be taboo, but the thing is it happens. You need to know, so you need to ask. You're not talking about genitalia, you're talking about checkboxes.

Of course you can also make the question fun, or have a laugh with the person. On any topic it's a good way to build the relationship. Just bear in mind that obvious jokes have already been heard before and might not be appreciated.

People are always confused about my gender, the worst thing about it is the constant apologies.

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    The smartest answer. – PHPst Mar 15 '14 at 14:26
  • I am reminded of the Seinfeld high-talker episode … – David M Mar 17 '14 at 18:16

The social awkwardness associated with this situation inspired a series of sketches on SNL, and a subsequent film.

It's going to be easier on the phone. Being Canadian, I think I'd apologize for having a cold and not being able to hear the person clearly, but I think you do have to come out (as it were) and ask.

enter image description here

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    It's PAT! I loved those sketches! – Kristina Lopez Mar 14 '14 at 13:39
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    @KristinaLopez - Still, that was 20 years ago. The younger generation has pretty much gotten over this, and will sometimes even introduce themselves with their preferred gender identification and pronoun list. – T.E.D. Mar 14 '14 at 13:43
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    @T.E.D. Yes, too much information sometimes. I don't really want to know if they're pre- or post-op trans, just whether they can do the job and what they would like to be called. – Spehro Pefhany Mar 14 '14 at 13:46
  • @T.E.D. Also, we're not quite dead yet, and the younger generation has to deal with the Boomer cohort for another decade or more. – Spehro Pefhany Mar 14 '14 at 13:50
  • @SpehroPefhany - It seems that way to me too. But I'm nearing 50, so that could just be an old fuddy-duddy being set in his ways. "Dealing with" us is going to become more and more a matter of trying to be patient while visiting us at The Home. – T.E.D. Mar 14 '14 at 13:57

I would simply ask, "Which box should I check?, M or F?, and keep in mind, this phone call is monitored"...a barely audible snicker should convey 'politeness', followed by , "seriously, we have a pool going on and I need to get this one right!"

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