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Addressing People

I’m facing a strange problem. Here’s the background. Although I am somewhat snarky, I do my best to address people somewhat formally when I first meet them or send them an email message. So I’m used to using Mr. Smith or Ms. Smith (or, when appropriate, Dr. Smith or Professor Smith or Dean Smith or whatever).

I also address students in this way since it confuses the power relationship (I make them call me Sam; I call them with a title) and also makes them uncomfortable (Mr. Smith is my dad. Ms. Smith is my mom.). I will admit that I sometimes use last names because I remember those better. And while my failing memory is a problem, it’s not the problem I’m addressing in this essay.

Here’s the problem. Recently, I’ve found it much more hard to decide how to address people when I’m using their last name. Sensitivity to my students’ self identities means that I do my best to ask for their preferred gender pronoun (PGP) on the first day of class, and I can generally use those. But the PGP does not always provide enough information for appropriate address. even our students who do not use the binary he/she often have not thought about how they should be addressed if I use a title and last name. When I asked President D how I should address them, they noted that they had never really thought about it. (We settled on President D, but that doesn’t work for most people.) Some of my students suggest that I use Mx. (pronounced Mix), and I’m comfortable with that.

But how should I address people whose PGP I don’t know? Within the Grinnell bubble, I’ve sometimes found myself using Dear Ms./Mr./Mx. Smith. However, I don’t think that will be considered as a particularly respectful greeting by people outside the bubble (it’s more generic than anything), and probably not even, within the bubble. Although it is inclusive, It is, at best, awkward. Increasingly, I’ve found myself just using first name and last name, as in Dear Sam Smith. Yet that greeting doesn’t seem to suggest the same level of formality that Dear Mr. Smith or Dear Ms. Smith seems to convey. For folks who are in academia, I tend to assume that it’s appropriate to address them as Dr..

So, where do I go from here? I had hoped that writing this essay would help me think through the issue. I wish it were something that I shouldn’t worry about. I know that outside of Grinnell, most people don’t care or expect people to think about these issues. But there are still instances in which I don’t know someone’s gender, even on the traditional binary, and I still need a way to address them. Inside Grinnell, I know that people do care, and, even though I can view a picture of post people on DB, appearance does not dictate gender. So it’s still a real issue on campus.

It’s tempting to just eliminate the second letter and use M.. However, M. is traditionally an abbreviation for Monsieur. (There’s probably a joke in there somewhere about not wanting to imply that either I or the person I am writing to is French, but I don’t think I can make that joke without being insulting.)

As a computer scientist, I suppose I could use M*., as in Dear M*. Smith. Hmmmm …. that could be a new trend. I’m not sure how I’ll pronounce it — M star sounds a bit too much like Mister. But for written text, it may suffice. It will confuse most people. It will amuse some. Maybe I do have a solution after all.

Version 1.0 of 2016-05-31.