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In my daily work I communicate with a lot of people in my company that I have neither encountered in person nor heard them on phone. The conversation is usually e-mail or online chat. Some of them have ambiguous first name. I would like to know if they are male or female so I know if I should refer to them as "he" or "she" when talking to other members of my team (for example explaining conclusion of the communication with the person). Is there a preferred polite way how to ask?

marked as duplicate by Kristina Lopez, RyeɃreḁd, RegDwigнt May 7 '14 at 13:31

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    Refer to them as "they" instead of "he" or "she". It's quite a delicate subject to deal with, good luck! – Ronan May 7 '14 at 10:27
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    In line with the responses you've garnered so far, I think the essence of the answer is very very carefully. – 568ml May 7 '14 at 10:47
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    @568ml You mean I shouldn't say: Do you have a vagina or a penis? – Tucker May 7 '14 at 11:01
  • So is it generally better and less offending to not ask and refer to them incorrectly (e.g. she for a man or he for a woman) when talking to other people about our conversation? – Fenikso May 7 '14 at 11:12
  • @Tucker that's exactly the kind of thing that could get you into trouble with HR. So as to avoid making assumptions, you should include options for neither and both. – 568ml May 7 '14 at 11:29

"Hi Fenikso, I don't think I've ever met anyone with that name before. Is it male or female?"

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    Though not much good if the name is one that is used for both sexes but common (Sam, Chris, Alex) or common in some countries (Naoise) or common in some countries as a male name and others as a female name (Nikita). – Jon Hanna May 7 '14 at 10:35

Since you'd only need to know this if you were filling in some form, just give them all the questions on the form in a single communication, including those like "name" that you already have answers for. Indeed, this isn't a bad idea as some people use shortened forms of their name on email, but not in other context.

If you don't need to know this, then there is no polite way, because asking a business contact about their personal life when it is neither relevant to your business, nor part of an informal non-business conversation, is not polite.


I used to conduct cold-call telephone research in which gender was a very important issue, and we did not even know the name of the person answering the phone. If they agreed to participate, we said

I just have to get a little background information for this form.

We would then read of questions like You live in ..., Your age is ..., Your gender is ..., and hesitate before each answer, even if it was one we knew, as if we were writing on a form, letting the respondent fill in the blank.

Most of the time the subject volunteered the answer without a problem.

Being mistaken about gender in a phone call is probably slightly more problematic (embarrassing) than in an email, since many people believe that their voice should convey their gender.

You might consider a slightly jesting question

While I feel that I know you fairly well, there are a few things about which I am not yet aware. When I talk about you with my colleagues (and you know I will), would you prefer I use the pronoun He or She? (No disrespect to the transgendered intended)

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