29

I often receive e-mail (typically inquiring about studying with me as a graduate students) from students, especially foreign students, whose gender/pronouns I can't easily tell (they haven't specified). (For people from the Americas and Europe I can usually guess reasonably reliably, but I get fuzzy when we get to names from Asian/African cultures). Let's say their name is "Foo (given name) Doe (family name)". I normally start formal e-mails "Dear [whoever]".

  • Applicants don't typically have a PhD, so I can't address them neutrally as "Dear Dr. Doe"
  • "Dear Foo" could work, but I generally like to be a little bit more formal with people I don't know (could argue that the rank differential [professor/prospective student] makes this OK?)
  • "Dear Doe" is not a form of address I ever use with anyone else, seems weird
  • "Dear Mx. Doe" is unusual in North America (and seems uncommon anywhere outside the UK: (Wikipedia)
  • "Dear Mr./Ms. Doe"?
  • Look up the name on the Internet and make a guess based on the region of origin?

Is there a best practice?

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  • 16
    What's with the formality? If they do come, we'll be on a first name basis. A plain "Hello" is fine. Jul 10 at 11:30
  • 13
    @EspeciallyLime If somebody would be unhappy for their title to be omitted, then they should not omit their title when telling you their name. They can hardly complain that you call them by the name they call themselves. If they introduce themselves without giving their title, then you are not merely guessing that they are OK with being addressed without their title; you have evidence they are OK with it.
    – kaya3
    Jul 10 at 14:38
  • 11
    @kaya3 It has always been normal to sign a letter with one's full name but no title, even in times when omitting a title in reply, or using someone's given name without explicit permission, was unheard of. Jul 10 at 15:02
  • 18
    The Wikipedia article says "Mx" is "accepted by the UK government." That does not mean it is commonly used. I would guess that 99% of the UK population have never used it, and would have to guess what it meant. Compare that with the fact that everybody in the UK knows what "Ms" means.
    – alephzero
    Jul 10 at 15:25
  • 6
    I like to maintain a little bit more formality when responding to someone I don't know, especially if I'm acting in an official capacity (e.g. as graduate chair; I didn't mention that in my question)
    – Ben Bolker
    Jul 10 at 22:44
51

For a salutation in communications written in English, I would suggest using:

Dear F. Doe,

or

Dear Foo Doe,

These salutations seem pretty gender-neutral (gender-inclusive) and sound natural to my ear. They avoid any assumptions on the gender or title of the applicant. This is probably close to the form that you are currently using already.

Justification for this particular best practice: Gender-inclusive writing: correspondence (Linguistic recommendation from the Translation Bureau, Government of Canada).

From the same source, it is clear that a "best practice" might change for communication in a different language. For French, they would recommend:

Bonjour,

or name-specific:

Foo Doe,

However, language dependence is just a side note for this particular question.

Other guidelines also exist, and if your educational institution or country has them, they are definitely worth taking a look at and considering for use. But choosing some guideline that targets gender-inclusivity is what one should do nowadays (unless something obviously flawed is discovered about a certain guide at some point).

3
  • 1
    Indeed, this is what I do when writing to editors of magazines, for instance... Jul 10 at 13:36
  • I suppose it does assume you know which name is to be abbreviated, which can sometimes be unclear, e.g. with Chinese names, who sometime use native Chinese order (Family Given), and sometimes flip them to Western order. I'm not even sure if would be normal to call someone e.g. "Mao Z." Jul 12 at 14:18
  • @AzorAhai-him- True. And then a "Dear Foo Doe," is perfectly good I guess. Jul 12 at 14:44
98

When responding to emails to people I have not met, I usually copy the name from the signature and add "Dear" in front.

4
  • 35
    This is the best answer - the simple principle is that somebody's name is what they tell you their name is.
    – kaya3
    Jul 10 at 11:12
  • 13
    Especially if it's unclear which part(s) of their signature would be "surname", or if that even makes sense. Jul 10 at 19:59
  • This answer is good but I accepted @AntonMenshov's answer because it goes into a little bit more depth.
    – Ben Bolker
    Jul 11 at 17:10
  • @BenBolker This answer is actually better because it works for people who only have one name. I've gotten emails from Javanese students before. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mononymous_person#Mononym-normal Jul 14 at 7:42
20

First, even in cases where you feel you can guess the gender, I suggest you to avoid using Mr or Ms because, first, there are exceptions that are easily misgendered and, second, you don't know the pronoun of the recipient. As an example of the former, Andrea in my country is a masculine name whereas in other countries is feminine. Many an Andrea has been misgendered along the years (a few years ago a former student of mine who had moved to Switzerland told me that he started signing off his emails as Andreas to avoid this).

Guessing which is the family name and which is the given one is also risky because in many Asian countries the family name is written first, but some people use the Western convention when writing to international recipients. In 2006, while organising a conference, I addressed many participants in the wrong way, until I realised about the exchange from the signature of someone I was familiar with.

So, in most cases, I've been using Anton Menshov's solution, with full name, for quite a while. For students, I also use

Dear Student

A bit impersonal but safe.

3
  • 2
    In fact, it's happened numerous times in math that the author ordering has been non-alphabetical (our standard) because even collaborators confused family vs given names of East Asian coauthors! (see academia.stackexchange.com/q/150414/19607)
    – Kimball
    Jul 10 at 13:13
  • 14
    Your former student, Andreas, may find that some people assume that's a female name too. (Source: personal experience) Jul 10 at 16:44
  • 1
    @AndreasBlass fwiw, that has never happened to me. Jul 11 at 8:30

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