Dear Sir …

“Excellent”, said an e-mail I received recently from a collaborator, “talk to you soon, Stephanie!” This happens to me a lot, in professional contexts. I have been called Stephanie by colleagues and teachers, bosses and students. I have been introduced to a full lecture theatre as Stephanie, I have been invited for job interviews as Stephanie.

I don’t like it.

Why do I not like it? Am I having issues with being addressed by my first name? Isn’t science an informal sort of enterprise, with flat hierarchies and generally cool people who call each other by their first names and wear geeky T-Shirts to work?

Well, yes and no. First of all, the laid-back flat-hierarchy cool scientist sort of thing is an image we like to project (including to ourselves). This does not mean it’s the truth, just that we like to believe it is. The truth is of course more complicated.

In addition, even within the scientific community, different cultures have different standards and habits of addressing people. For instance, medicine is quite a bit more formal and hierarchical than, say, computer science. In addition, there are different traditions in different countries. I am from Austria, where university (and other) degrees and professional titles are a very important part of a person’s everyday identity and determine not only how someone is addressed, but also how long they have to wait at the passport office. Or at the dentist’s. Or at the Wurst counter. I am not going to go into details, but if you are interested, there is a nice overview here. Like many Austrians of my generation, I have always been sceptical of this, and I prefer the simple address of Herr/Frau Lastname. Or really just first names.

Then again, professionally, the matter is complicated by issues of diversity and representation. In a world where women are still denied (and, to some extent, shy away from) positions of power and responsibility, why hide our own professional achievement? Should we not be shouting it from the rooftops, in order to encourage younger women to dream big? Read this interesting piece in the New York Times, for instance. Then again, how do I square this with my ideal of the university as a community of like-minded intellectuals, where everyone sees eye to eye and where your thoughts and ideas matter more than your status? It’s really not easy. And I don’t know if I even have the time and energy to think about the matter and arrive at an opinion. I am starting to think I don’t care. First name, last name, “captain, my captain”, whatever. Really, it’s up to you.

Wait, there is an exception. This is the exception: Do not, under any circumstances, call me “Dear Sir”. If you send me an e-mail starting with “Dear Sir”, at least one of two things must be true: A) You have not bothered to do the minimal possible amount of research about me before contacting me. Or B) You think my profile picture looks like a man. Neither of these makes you look good in my eyes. So, if I get a “Dear Sir” mail, I will usually delete it immediately. When, for some reason, I am obliged to answer, I will always start the message with “Dear Madam”, just to restore a tiny little bit of balance.

So, let’s summarise: Addressing people is complicated. I am going to ignore the complicated part and say: Whichever way you choose is fine, just as long as you don’t call me “Sir”.

Or “Stephanie”.

But wait, did I not just say I was fine with first names? Indeed, I am. So, what’s the problem with calling me Stephanie, you might ask? This is the problem with calling me Stephanie:

It is not my f*ing name.

5 thoughts on “Dear Sir …

  1. Thanks for an interesting read, Madam.

    I stumbled across: “When, for some reason, I am obliged to answer, I will always start the message with “Dear Madam”, just to restore a tiny little bit of balance.”
    Because, if this is to have a balancing effect, does it mean you are solely being called “Sir” by men? Something I will check in my own email folder…
    Also, I think (A) is probably more often the reason for being called “Sir” than (B). Or maybe it is (C), a lack of imagination that a Madam could really be as cool a researcher you are 😀

    • I guess that it is most often men who call me “Sir”, because women tend to find it easier to imagine that there are other women out there. That’s not to say it’s always the case, so if I reply by saying “Dear Madam”, I might sometimes be right. In that case, no harm is done 🙂

  2. A very interesting NYT article! In person, that seems like a very good strategy. On the other hand, in written communications this is much harder, since “Dr. Berry” will default to male for many recipients. Do you have a proven strategy for that situation? Use a person’s first name to avoid mistaken assumptions about their gender and use other methods to point out their expertise? (Which other methods?)

    Regarding “Stephanie”: I would understand if someone just mixed up your first/last name and called you “Stefan” – although that would probably still feel weird. But “Stephanie”? That’s a strange combination of mistakes.

    Since my first name is rather uncommon, I sometimes experience similar confusion. I even had a case once, where someone switched my first/last name and then referred to me as “Ms. Jost”. I found this quite amusing; but that’s easy if it just happens once-per-decade, or so …

    Cheers from Munich 😉

    • This is an interesting question, Jost. It’s complicated by the fact that there is a fine line between making diversity visible and pointing out at every opportunity that someone is not just “a person who does XYZ” but “a female person who does XYZ”. You get that a lot in the news, for instance, where male politicians are often referred to by last name alone, whilst female politicians are referred to by first name plus last name (as in “Obama met with Angela Merkel”). As if what they wanted to say is “Obama met with Merkel, who – by the way – is a woman (!)” over and over and over again. Not only does this permanently draw attention to the fact that Merkel is a woman (even if this is not pertinent to the story), but it also reinforces the default view that if a name or address is unmarked, it must be male.

  3. I suffer with you but at least they do not mix up your sex, you get to stay female.

    Whenever I get in contact with someone via mail (my signature reads: Siegrid Forster, Legal Affairs and Insurance) they will write back to me adressing me as “Dear Mr. Forster” or “Dear Siegfried”.

    This also happens after I actually talked to this person on the telephone.

    Titlemania is something that wears thin when you go further west in Austria. In Vorarlberg and Tirol you are frowend upon when you flaunt your title. I actualy have a “special” business card without my title on it for “local purposes”.


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