How to choose the correct address in emails?

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Having emailed fellow researchers around the world, I noted some differences in ways of addressing people that for some might be offensive and for others very polite. I often struggle when trying to decide how to address someone and over the time have derived the one main rule that allows me to finish any mail at all: However my email correspondent signs is how I call them. I don’t mean their fancy signature with all honorary degrees, but the words that are usually preceded by “Best, …” or “Regards, …”. Surprisingly often for my German sensibilities, this is a first name. Of course, there is this dreaded first email to someone you have not been introduced to (otherwise the introducer would take care of name choices, phew).

I recently received one of those first mails, and it prompted me to write this post. A couple of first year undergraduates were coming to the lab for a week to find out what cognitive science research looks like. They wrote the nicest email to introduce themselves and coordinate everything, but they ruined it for a second because they addressed me – in English – as “Mrs Bergmann“.

I was a bit taken aback and thought I spent all this time on getting to being a Dr. and then this happens. And indeed, in Germany (and I hear in the US, too, because of the assumption about me being married) writing to me in an academic context and calling me Mrs would be very impolite. Rather, you would in a first email add ALL titles and use a very formal address: “Sehr geehrte Dr. Bergmann“, which means most honoured Dr. Bergmann. For a professor, you might even go for “Prof. Dr.“. There are even more shades of academic titles, but those are the ones you’d be expected to know. I think. I have been away for some time already, though.

But before I responded to the email of these otherwise (and as it turned out also in person) very nice students, I asked a few colleagues who either have lived here a long time or are French. I learned that things work differently in France because it is frowned upon to use a title in emails and conversations. Instead you go for the more ‘esteemed’ address of Madame to honor all accomplishments and to add a level of seniority. Alternatively, you could write “Chère (dear) Christina Bergmann“. In this case, one might think you’re too lazy to look the title up, but wouldn’t be offended, I guess.

Funnily enough, in the international context, people seem to prefer to err on the side of caution, I have been receiving emails for a certain Dr. Bergmann and even a letter for Prof. Bergmann years before I even had a defense date! This strategy seems a good one. After all, have you ever been offended by someone adding titles to your name?

 

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4 thoughts on “How to choose the correct address in emails?

  1. This is an important issue! But I think there are really two different points. The first, which is true for females and males alike, is that it’s usually better to err on the side of assuming higher status rather than lower status! So calling someone Dr. or Prof. before they are, is perfectly fine. But the second issue is more problematic for women because in many locations there is gender marking on forms of address. So in some European countries, women professors are Mrs. Professor Doctor which is ridiculous because a person’s gender has nothing at all to do with their professional work. When I’ve received invitations to serve on dissertation committees in countries such as the Netherlands, I often refuse until the paperwork is changed to be gender neutral. Likewise, I correct the use of Mrs. to explain that my marital status is irrelevant and if a man is to be addressed Mr. then a woman should be addressed as Ms. A number of years ago, Natalie Angier, a feminist science writer for the New York Times, wrote a piece on the use of the word “Ma’am” which from some perspectives might seen polite but from others is offensive. Here’s the link:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/weekinreview/29angier.html?_r=0

    As you’ll see, I was interviewed for that piece and explained that I tell my classes on the first day that my name is not Mrs. Kroll. It is the only media experience I’ve had for which I subsequently received hate mail!

    My advice, for what it’s worth, is to give you own advice generously to others without being snippy to explain that your gender is not really the point in most of these exchanges and that forms of address should not mark gender. This is about education and we need to use every opportunity to do that. Some think that these issues are too small to fuss about but they are important because they reflect the gender stereotypes that are encountered even within the academy. I only make one exception — if the phone rings and I am addressed as Mrs. with my husband’s last name, I first ask if it’s a medical emergency. If he is in an ambulance, I am not going to use that moment for education. If not, then I explain that there is no person by that name!

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    1. Thank you for your comments, they add a very useful perspective. First, it is shocking, but sadly not surprising, that you received hate mail for not wanting to be Mrs. Kroll. Whose status and position in life is so unstable that they are offended enough to write?

      As you point out, there are two issues; one is choosing the right (or higher) level of honorific and the other is gender marking. I think we can circumvent the gender marking problem precisely because we have the out of using honorifics, but that holds mostly for English speaking exchanges. I am not (yet?) educating people enough, at least in part because I find it difficult to balance between local habits and what we consider proper as academics.
      In French, nearly everything is gender marked (see “Chère”), as is the case for German (Dutch is different here, as it doesn’t distinguish male and female in most cases). So it might seem less of a leap to add the respective translation of Mrs. / use Mrs. in English speaking exchanges. Add to that the French distaste for using titles, and we have a cultural gap on our hands that I at first did not know how to bridge. I do understand where the students are coming from, but it doesn’t make it the correct form to address me, at least in an academic context in English.

      A small anecdote from the Netherlands to go with your experiences, and I applaud your efforts: The doors of professors were either labelled Prof. X or Mrs. Prof. Y until one of those Mrs. Prof. complained. Noone even noticed or saw issue, so I agree it’s important to speak up, and I also don’t see it as a waste of time and energy. Precisely those small things can wear one down and be the support structure for greater and systemic differences that are simply unnecessary. (I was lucky, my door just said the names of my office mates and me, no gender marking in sight).

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