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Opening Arguments

Dear reader

My sister saves the crosssword puzzles from The Indianapolis Star for me. They're on the same page as cartoons and advice columns. After working one of the puzzles on vacation last week, I saw a piece by Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners column. A reader relates to Miss Manners an encounter with someone "obviously in the advanced stages of male-to-female traisition -- complete with feminine attire" and confesses to a dilemma:

I was unsure whether to say, “Hello, Mr. Jones” or “Hello, Ms. Jones,” so I opted for what I thought would be a very safe “Hello, Dr. Jones,” as I am quite sure that all of the chairs of the university’s departments are PhDs.

Dr. Jones responded with shock and said, “You should call me John!” I duly apologized and the encounter otherwise went well.

{How should one address] transgendered persons who, for various reasons during their transition, appear androgynous for a while? Is it permissible to ask how they would like to be addressed? I have always thought inquiring as to what gender a person was seemed rude.

"Are you a boy or are you a girl?" Yes I suppose that is rude (as well as a silly late '60s song mocking long-hair-hippieness criticism). But I do confess to having never, ever contemplated the dilemma referenced here. So I was glad to read Miss Manners' straightforward and, in retrospect, obvious solution:

Miss Manners is sorry to cut through the complications of this situation with a simple answer, but when someone tells you to use his or her first name, it is conferring a privilege, not reacting to a perceived insult.

In general, though, you could use some other gender-neutral term, such as “dear colleague” or “my friend,” until the transition is complete.

Yes, I will use that should the occasion arise. "Dear colleague" sounds like such a good ice-breaker at a party, and good manners are so important, don't you think? Funny old world.


Harl Delos
Tue, 02/07/2012 - 7:06am

Seems to mt that the Stylebook says you should refer to someone in the manner in which they prefer to be referred.  That is, we call her Roseanne, not Roseanne Barr, nor Roseanne Arnold, nor Roseanne Sherie Barr Pentland Arnold Thomas.  While there are exceptions - newspapers used to refer to "the artist formerly known as Prince" for reasons of typographical insufficiency, and the Columbus Dispatch has used "That School Up North" for years to refer to the institutional spawn of Satan in Ann Arbor, for the same reason that practicing Jews don't say or write the name of their deity.

So what's wrong with asking "So how would you like me to address you?"  It's what you really want to know, and it's not rude, like asking for a field inspection of the plumbing.  It must take an awful lot of pain for someone to opt for sexual reassignment.  Someone with that much courage isn't going to be crushed in humiliation when someone asks how they can best support someone through that transition.  Would you agonize over it if a coworker appeared in a wheelchair and you didn't know whether they'd like you to get the door for them?  No, you'd make the offer and quietly accept either answer without comment.  Stop blushing and use your common sense!

But Ms. Martin is too genteel to tell people they're being stupid.