Q.: Karen, what is the proper way to address a letter to someone with a name that can be either male or female? I wouldn't want to address something to a “Mr.” to later find out the person was a woman.
A.: Gender-ambiguous or neutral names are more common than you might think and can present a problem in addressing letters and emails. Addressing something to a woman when it turns out to be a man can be embarrassing. And there are situations when you would not want to address something in an informal way by using the person's first name only — for instance, a letter to someone regarding an employment situation.
Traditionally, there were names that sounded the same but had a slightly different spelling denoting a male or female, such as Frances vs. Francis or Erin vs. Aaron, but relying on spelling these days may not give you the right answer. Parents have gotten very creative with spelling when naming their children, which is their prerogative.
There are also trends to names. Some of the old names that we have not heard for decades come back into fashion with slightly different spellings. And many children are named after prominent people of the day or celebrities and sports figures.
So, when in doubt as to the person's gender, based on the name, try a few of these things first:
•Do your homework. It's easy to do an Internet search on someone these days, and you may find the answer to your question.
•If your correspondence is job-related, call the company and ask specifically about the person in question.
•Address your correspondence to Chris Smith, leaving out the Ms. or Mr. It is not as personal, but does get around the gender question.
•Be sensitive to regional and international names. In the South, many people are given a mother's maiden name as their first name. And international people may have very unfamiliar names to us.
If you have one of those names that causes confusion for people, try making it easier on everyone with a few tricks:
•If your nickname is the issue, use your more formal name in your own correspondence, such as Christopher or Christine, even though you are known as Chris.
•In your signature block add in parentheses Ms. or Mr. after your name. Putting it after your name is less stuffy than putting it in front of your name because we don't typically give ourselves an honorific when signing a letter or email.
•Have a sense of humor about the confusion and put people at ease if they get it wrong.