Which is worse?

Being addressed as ‘Dear Sir’ by someone who has sent a letter to my department which came to me due to my particular role in the department? Or being addressed as ‘Dear Miss Jender’ in an email from the university bookshop about what books I need ordered for the Autumn semester? Both in 48 hours. What next? I eagerly await. Do feel free to share similar linguistic annoyances here!

28 thoughts on “Which is worse?

  1. Both pretty bad. Can’t decide.

    I’m currently conducting an experiment with my credit card on related issues. It doesn’t reveal my (female) first name and merely reads ‘Dr BTPS’. I decided to start seeing how many waiters presumptively give the card to my male partner when we eat out. Currently the figure is 100% of the times. (We’ve not placed the card on his side of the table, etc, but always in the middle and tried not to give any signals about whose card it is.) Obviously this is totally anecdotal but interesting!

    (Saying that, a friend did suggest that it may be because in the UK men are expected to pay for dinner. So, could be that! Clearly will have to continue the experiment by eating out a lot.)

  2. Exactly the same for me, Buffy. Even when I hand the card over myself. And, perhaps relatedly, Mr J always gets the wine and I always get the beer, even when the waiter heard me ask for beer and Mr J ask for wine. (Effect is stronger still when I order whisky.)

  3. Hi! Interesting (and annoying stories).
    I was also very annoyed when Yorkshire Water sent letters to me addressed to “Ms Diaz-Leon & Mr Diaz-Leon”. They couldn’t have got it any more wrong!! First of all, there is no Mr Diaz-Leon, and I was living on my own (as I told them when I registered). Secondly, why assuming that if I was married, it would be to Mr X, and not to Ms X (as would be more likely)?? And also, we should they think that we would have the same name? In Spain, for example, people never change their surnames when they get married.
    Lots of wrong assumptions, then!

  4. Jender, not sure you meant “even when the waiter heard me ask for beer”??

    Our students call male lecturers “Dr” or “Prof,” and never “Mr,” as is the convention here. Women? Often “Miss” or “Mrs.” Another favorite and a real classic: Taking a young male assistant with me and finding that he’s consistently the one who to whom remarks are directed, attention paid, the one listened to.

  5. Totally miswrote that, JJ! I meant that Mr J always gets the beer and I always get the wine, even when I ask for beer. Whoops!

  6. What’s worse? Not being addressed at all!
    I choose which battles I will fight. This one has been ongoing since the essentialism of the 70’s, and really sometimes so petty its not worth the apoplexy. Maybe the new guarde fems will have better luck changing people’s polite manners.

  7. Good Morning, I’m Dr. Winslow. I have your blood work here.

    Good Morning, Dr. Winslow, I’m Dr. D’Arcy.

    Ok, Anne, let’s go over these numbers.

  8. Gagme, I’m not sure you’d disagree with what I’m about to say, but it is a defense of taking note at least of these things and addressing them.

    When I was living in Oxford, I used to think it was “so American” to address issues of language that seemed to me very different from issues of substance. Back now in the States, I do see it differently, particularly when I’m stuck somewhere that the PC demands haven’t had much impact. It’s not completely easy to change habits of speech that reflect deep societal prejudices and insisting on their change is a way of bringing to people’s minds their more implicit biases. And if they don’t really have a choice about how to behave, they do actually have to change a bit.

    Mind you, recent discussions in the philosophical world have led me to wonder if the changes in language haven’t produced a following generation that has all the correct language and so has the illusion that they don’t have the biases. So they can say that the problem with no women in such and such a context is that women don’t do metaphysics or whatever, it’s never having occurred to them that they simply do not see the women that do.

  9. What I hate most about the UK is being called Miss or Mrs. I’ve given up on expecting anyone to think I’m Dr. (being 5′ tall and young looking means I’m mistaken for an undergrad instead of a lecturer) but where the heck is Ms.? Who cares if I’m married or not??? (I’m divorced, so I don’t even know what the right convention is)

  10. recently i was at a local music venue to hear one of my friend’s band play. dude at the door yells to me “hey girl! come back here – i have to stamp your hand”

    i yell back: “that’s DR. girl, thanks!”

  11. On the issue of who gets the check, my partner and I (we’re both female) have noticed an interesting trend. I’d say at least 75% of the time when we put the credit card/bill in the middle of the table, the server hands it back to her. And there has definitely been more than one time when I handed the bill/card to the server and s/he still tried to hand it back to my partner.

    It’s always my credit card inside (my partner has bad credit) and I do everything related to the bills in the house, so it’s always amusing when it gets handed to her and she just hands it right across the table. Our hypothesis about why they hand it to her? Because of the two of us she’s more butch looking–short hair, wears men’s clothes. Once in awhile people who aren’t looking closely at her mistakenly call her sir, but in most of the cases where servers hand her the check they have usually already referred to her as female (we get a lot of “how are you ladies tonight?” as greetings).

    I actually have much less strong feelings about the case of jumping from “Dr. D’Arcy” to “Anne.” I mean, I suppose out of politeness one should refer to a person the way they introduce themselves. In that situation, Dr. Winslow is actually functioning in the role of doctor in the interaction while Dr. (medical or PhD) Darcy is not. Similarly, if a medical doctor came to my office hours to ask questions about philosophy, I wouldn’t refer to him/her as “Dr.” and would find it odd if that was how they introduced her/himself. But maybe your point was just that if the patient were a man the other Dr. would have been more likely to stick with Mr. Darcy, which I don’t doubt is true.

  12. I work in the same department as my husband, which has given rise to a lot of these kind of gaffes. My favorite so far was when a male student came to my office hours and started off hesitantly addressing me as “Dr. Barnes”. He then checked the name-plate on the door – sure enough, it says “Dr. E Barnes”. He started to look confused, and eventually said “Wait, you’re married to Dr. Cameron, right? So shouldn’t your name be Mrs. Cameron and not Dr. Barnes?”

    Silly me: I was supposed to take the *last name*, and instead I took the *title*.

  13. Esa, I’m just amazed they called you ‘Ms’! Like NFAH, I was amazed at the lack of choice re titles, and also at how much more often titles are required here. You want a prescription for a throat infection? First tell me whether you’re married! Over the years, I’ve stopped being shocked at all the feminist students who don’t use ‘Ms’– last count less than 5% of my feminism students used ‘Ms’. I even now understand their reluctance. In the UK, anyway, there’s very little awareness of the title. Those who have heard it think that it means divorced, widowed, in a long-term partnership but not married, or single with children. So for many women ‘Ms’ serves not as a way of avoiding giving out personal information, but as a way of giving out FALSE information.
    Interesting point, JJ, about all the folks in philosophy who choose their language carefully but still overlook women’s contributions. But did anyone really think that changing language would suffice to change thought? Patterns of thought are hard to change, and even if changing the language can have some effect on thought, it’s certainly not going to fix everything. And this is now especially clear given what we know of implicit bias. It seems to me now that one of the most pressing projects is to make people aware of implicit bias, so that they don’t let themselves off the hook just because all of their conscious thoughts are feminist ones.
    Elizabeth– what a silly error you made! Surely you can fix it now that the student’s pointed it out. ;)

  14. PhilFemGal, really interesting that with two women they choose the most butch to give the cheque to!

  15. HI Jender. I don’t suppose anyone would think that fixing the language would solve all the problems; but a while back I would have said that it would certianly help, and in any case couldn’t hurt. But now I think it sometimes can hurt, because I’ve come across too many people who seem to think they don’t need to work any more on themselves because they say all the right things: they even have all the right beliefs, consciously – but implicit bias is all too evident in their actions. As you say: they let themselves off the hook because they’ve got all the right beliefs at a conscious level. But I wonder whether that means we should stop fighting the linguistic battles, or if it just means we need to fight more battles at once.

    RE ‘ms’; I had no idea at all until very recently that it wasn’t commonly understood what this meant. I was so surprised that anyone thought it entailed anything wrt being married/divorced/widowed etc. I wonder what’s gone wrong with that one.

  16. It’d be surprising if there wasn’t a connection between the language issues and the implicit bias – but we’d need some empirical studies… (difficult to speculate on the causal relation between the two).
    I’d be happier with more battles than ditching the linguistic ones!

    On a different note: I’ve found that its not just specific titles that come with a gender bias – personhood does too (perhaps)!
    If I leave free the boxes on a form (which I always do if there’s no Ms, and sometimes do anyway if gender seems totally irrelevant to the matter in hand) I *consistently* get mail that presumes I’m a Mr. (even rather than just to A.Stoat)

    Another time my gender ambiguous name was mistaken, twice ,in print (the second time after being corrected) for a male name. I was told they’d wondered about it, but gone with male. (A simple email to inquire would have sufficed! – Oh no, actually it may not have, because when I did email them, they still got it wrong!)

    Two possible explanations:
    i. the false gender neutrality of ‘person’, which in fact tends to be read as ‘man’, in the absence of contrary evidence (and sometimes in the presence of it!).
    ii. or I wonder if it’s deemed to be less offensive to mistake a female for a male (but what horror should a man be mistaken for a giiirrl!), so in cases of uncertainty male is the default assumption.

  17. Wow. I had no idea most people don’t understand what Ms means.
    I do often have this conversation on the phone:
    “Miss X?”
    “No, Ms”
    “Nooo, MZ”
    “Huh??????” *Does not compute*
    I am sure some people do it deliberately, to annoy the uppity feminists. GRRRRR.

    On gender-ambiguous names: a colleague of mine has a similarly ambiguous name (e.g. Nicky). He is a guy (gay). Another male colleague we deal with once called him the female version (e.g. Nicola)…and they had met! I don’t think it was a deliberate slur, but wonder if he had internalised “OMG teh GAY, must be feminine” (to me, he isn’t particularly feminine or camp seeming at all, such that I didn’t immediately think he was gay – but maybe the other guy picked up on something) and half-remembering the meeting, subconsciously remembered the “feminine” quality.

  18. Thanks, Ross. I am wondering if it is harming in just that way. Still, let me see if I can give another sort of example before my battery quits. I saw in an academic newspaper in my red state a university administrator explain he wasn’t responding to a minority group’s request because, after all, they are minorities and he wanted to put money where it would help more people.

    I read the article to my son in NYC, who responded that the places he had been to fired people who said things like that. (Presumably a bit of an exaggeration.) So what do you do when officials are still thinking like that out loud and forming policies on those grounds? I think it has helped that at least some people know that those cannot be given in good places as reasons for acting.

    Mind you, then there’s that former president of Harvard….

  19. Stoat, your second explanation (safer to assume a male when in doubt) does ring a bell. It was actually the official policy for addressing customers in one of my former workplaces, because women were used to the mistake while men tend to make a fuss about it. And the author of that policy was a woman. I think a gender and marital status neutral “polite” form of address would be a welcome innovation. Actually “Dr” was actually greeted with much relief by those who had to guess — not me, they know better than letting me have any contact with a customer.

    As for eating out, a few years ago I quite often did that with a friend, and when it was her turn to pay we had a lot of fun seeing the waiter’s jaw drop when she handed her card. I live in France, and old habits seem to die hard around here.

  20. Another explanation, Stoat: it was a philosophy journal, and male was therefore by far the best bet!

  21. I have a funny story about this.
    My 1st mentor was at a very small branch of a state uni in a very small poor town where finishing highschool is usually the height of educational attainment. Everyone knows she is married & just assume she too her husbands name. So in class a student called her Mrs. G…. when trying to ask a question about the4 homework, she turned around and said her mother wasnt there & wrote down her moms phone number so he could call her and told him that she couldnt imagine what he might want her mother for as she has no idea about what she is teaching but if he wanted her moms help so bad she was sure her mom could do whatever she could to help him. At least for the rest of that semester she was addressed as Dr as she should be since it was she who worked so hard to get that degree!

  22. Phone call:
    BT Support Engineer: Mrs. House…

    Wendy: …my mother isn’t here

    BT Support Engineer: can I talk to her?

    Wendy: I don’t see why, its my phone, my home, my internet connection and I’m 44, why do you need to talk to my mother?

    BT Support Engineer: Ms. House?

    Wendy: Yes?

  23. Wonderful, Wendy! And amazing that the BT engineer figured it out. Mr Jender does not actually share my last name, but he is often addressed as ‘Mr Jender’. To which he replies, “There is no Mr Jender. My wife is Dr Jender.” Over and over and over as bafflement increases. Eventually the caller hangs up. They NEVER get it.

  24. I remember Elizabeth Anscombe’s standard response when addressed as “Mrs Geach.” That is, “There is no Mrs Geach, nor can she be logically constructed.”

    One supposes the standard reaction was not so positive, but we, her students, thought it was hilarious.

    This lead me to a great mistake: to think that after her efforts, the battle was no longer worth fighting. But I was so young and naive when I made my decision about my last name. Or perhaps in some other more deep way it was clear that she was not going to be a role model for our futures.

  25. My brother and I both have gender-neutral first names (I’m a woman). He works as an office administrator, and I do philosophy. One of my mother’s friends, on being introduced to us for the first time, have turned to me and asked, ‘do you enjoy being a secretary?’. Grrrrrr….

  26. Sadly, Ms. = unmarried much of the time around me (in the Wash, DC suburbs). In elementary school I had several teachers go from Ms. Maiden Name to Mrs. Husband’s Last Name. Even at the time, I was pretty horrified.

  27. The bookstore has now told me they based their choice of ‘Miss’ on my webpage. Which leaves me wondering, “was it the PhD or the feminism that made them think I’d like to be called ‘Miss’?”

  28. Since my mother not only kept her last name, but also passed it on to my brother and I, this has occasionally caused great confusion in public. For instance, the people at the bank did not believe my (teenaged) brother when he answered the security question “mother’s maiden name” with the same last name he had. They would not let him open an account without proof from her that that really was her “maiden” name. There was also always the problem with phone calls. If someone asked for “Mrs. Reed,” my mother would say, “I’m sorry, she’s deceased,” referring to my father’s mother. I have only ever met one other family in which the children have the mother’s last name!

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