4 Ways to Handle Gender-Ambiguous Names


Every so often, I hear from a reader about how to address a cover letter to someone when they can’t tell whether the person is male or female.  Judging by my kindergartener’s classmates’ names, this problem is only going to grow as those Dakotas and Jordans grow up (although she has one classmate whose first name is “Sir Michael.”  Not Michael.  “Sir Michael.”  So I guess that cover letter pretty much addresses itself.).

Since I actually have one of those ambiguous first names, I think I’ve pretty much seen every possibility.  Here are some ways you can handle this:

  1. Use the first name. I know there are a few dinosaurs left who can’t stand to be addressed by their first names.  In my experience those are the sorts of people who are going to find a way to be offended no matter what you do.  Using the first name is the solution I’ve seen most often, and I always figured it was either because it’s 2009 and not 1909, or because they can’t figure out what to call me (and my last name is also a challenge for people, so I feel sorry for anyone trying to send me anything).
  2. Use the full name. I also get a fair amount of mail addressed to “Dear Kerry Sandberg Scott.”  I’m not sure this is the most elegant solution, but it works (and you get to show me that you can spell all three of my names, so bonus points for that).
  3. Use “Dear Mr./Ms. Surname” Anyone with a gender-neutral name is used to this.  It’s not a big deal.  You’re not going to offend them by telling them that their name is gender-neutral.  They already know.  (Clue:  Women with two last names are not called Mrs., unless their husbands are running for office.  Don’t call a two-last-name chick Mrs.  If she went to the trouble to keep her own surname, it’s very likely that she’s not the sort of person who enjoys being called Mrs.  It’s Ms. Trust me on this.)
  4. Google. Sometimes you’re stumped because the name can go either way, but other times, it’s because the name is completely foreign to you.  In these cases, sometimes it helps to Google.  If all of the references to the name say “she,” there’s your answer.  I’ve also used Facebook to search for a first name.  For example, if you search the name “Hjalmer,” you’ll find that everyone with that first name on Facebook has a picture of a guy (it’s also a surname sometimes, but mostly it’s a Scandinavian male first name).

Bottom line—don’t sweat this too much.  On behalf of people with names like “Kerry” everywhere, we’re used to it, and only the weeniest among us care that much if you get the gender right on the cover letter.  In fact, to be honest, I don’t always notice what they call me.  I’m just happy they bothered to include a cover letter at all.

Photo by Mo Kaiwen

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  1. Julie O'Malley 8 years ago
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