I’ve met someone at the SAP-conference this weekend, whom I never met before, but with whom I had corresponded quite intensively over a period of two years. And now it turns out that this person is a man, whereas I had assumed he was a woman. He has a name that I am not familiar with, but I had just somehow assumed this was a woman’s name.
Reflecting a bit on this, I notice that I see two patterns in my sex-to-name-attributing habits.
Either I am familiar with the name, and (correctly) attribute their sex to the person with whom I correspond. Else the name is so unfamiliar to me, for example Japanese names, that I look it up on internet. What happened in the current case, is that I somehow thought I’d know that this was a female name, but made a mistake.
Now what I find interesting, is that I find it difficult (at quite an unconscious level, it seems) to correspond with someone I’ve never met without attributing a sex to that person, whereas I don’t think this holds for ‘race’, age, disability or something else. In the case of race I actually remember that I corresponded for two years with a South African scholar (whose first name is Ina, which my brain (rightly) took to be a woman’s name), but it was only when I was going to visit her, that I suddenly wondered: how would she look like? For these two years of correspondence, it never inhibited my being able to correspond easily with her without trying to imagine her age or color of skin – but it seems like my brain needs to know the sex of a person I correspond with.
Do you recognize this phenomenon? And if my self-analysis is correct, then I wonder: why is it the case that my brain needs to know the sex of unknown correspondents, but doesn’t seem to have the same needs with other personal and bodily characteristics? Would it have something to do with the fact that our languages are ‘gendered’? English may be an exception, but in my mother tongue, and all other languages that I know (except English) one has to learn the gender of a word. (this is most clearly for me in French and German: le garçon, la fille; der Mann, die Frau). Could that provide a clue for this phenomenon, or is my speculation now completely running wild?