My brain needs to know your sex

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 30, 2012

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?



Jim Gardner 06.30.12 at 10:32 pm

The science fiction novel “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand” (by Samuel R. Delany) takes place in a society where all intelligent creatures (including aliens) are referred to as “women” and “she”…except when you’re in the throes of sexual desire for someone, at which point you call that person a “man” and “he”. I found it eye-opening how frustrating this was: my brain desperately wanted to know what sex various characters *really* were, even when it was completely irrelevant (which is to say, pretty much always). Whether the cause was cultural conditioning or something in the monkey brain, my need to know was overwhelming.


James Camien McGuiggan 06.30.12 at 10:50 pm

I’m actually not sure that I don’t need to assume non-gender characteristics just as I need to assume gender. I wonder if the tendency to think otherwise is because in everything but gender, there’s a default choice. Ceteris paribus, I assume people are – I confess – white and straight and cissexual and so on simply because statistically, they probably are. But as the male/female ratio is about 50/50, there’s no default, so the task of choosing which one to apply must be more consciously faced.

For example – forgive me if this is rude – I assume you’re female, because I have it in my head that ‘Ingrid’ is a female name (it is this post which makes me realise I don’t know why I think that!), and I would be a bit shocked to discover you were male. But equally I would be shocked to discover you were black, as I assume you’re white (you’ve what I think is a Dutch name, and in my mind the Dutch are white).


Barry Freed 06.30.12 at 11:17 pm

I just had the same thing happen with regard to a front page poster at fairly well known web site who goes by a pseudonym. I could have sworn that said poster had sometime in the course of writing identified as male but only now another commenter at another blog referred to the same poster as female. Result: mind blown.

I don’t want to start a Crooked Timber flame war or get some posters/commenters who I really respect mad at me but there’s something ontological about gender whereas race and other attributes seem accidental in comparison. Hence the compulsive need to know it.


nostalgebraist 06.30.12 at 11:17 pm

My guess is something to do with language, too. Even in English, third-person personal pronouns have genders (“he,” “she”). When I’m thinking about how to act in a given situation — say, if I’m thinking about what to write in an email — I tend to have a running verbal track in my head that involves phrases in which those pronouns inevitably appear (I ask myself things like, e.g., “what would [s]he expect out of me?”). It’s hard to do this without having one or the other in mind. (Personally, I use “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun a lot, and I so my mind-voice will use it if I don’t know which pronoun to use. But that use of “they” isn’t entirely standard [yet], and not everyone uses it.)


Wax Banks 06.30.12 at 11:28 pm

why is it the case that my brain needs I need to know the sex of unknown correspondents

Fixed that for you. It’s not ‘your brain,’ in any case, anymore than ‘you’ are your brain’s body…

Your question is definitely interesting, but the way you’ve phrased it — using language that pops up, in this Gladwell/Lehrer epoch of ours, wherever Good Clean Progressive Folk wish to distance themselves from personality features they’d rather not possess (or be possessed by) — is interesting too. Moreso, to me. Though I’m unhealthily word-nerd in that regard.

Surely this feature is at least as central to your identity and its formation as, say, whatever cognitive engine writes your blog posts. :)


mclaren 06.30.12 at 11:36 pm

Evolutionarily speaking, the most important issue for small groups of paleolithic humans when meeting other humans would involve the potential to mate in order to increase the already thin gene pool. Exogamy was doubtless common in early paleolithic hunter-gatherers, so other issues like appearance or skin color would have proven much less important in terms of group survival than whether the new person is the opposite sex.

For a mathematical treatment of the likely size and structure of Paleolithic societies, see H. Martin Wobst’s landmark paper “Boundary conditions for Paleolithic social systems: a simulation approach,” American Antiquity, 1974, 39(2):147-178. The mathematics of group selection has been dealt with extensively by R.A. Fisher in 1930, J. B. S. Haldane in 1932 and 1955, W. D. Hamilton and George Price in 1964, and 1964. Anthropological research has shown that most clans are exogamous (due to the limited size of their gene pool; Wobst estimates Paleolithic tribes at no more than 25 members) and regard reproduction/marriage within their own group as a form of taboo incest, so this would neatly explain our apparently hardwired interest in whether a stranger is male or female. Clan members without a strong interest in whether a stranger was male or female would tend to differentially reproduce at a lower rate than clan members who had such concerns, since the former group would encounter fewer opportunities for reproduction — you have a better shot at getting lucky if you qualify the prospects by first ascertaining their gender.

References on the mathematics of group selection are:

Fisher, R. A. (1930). The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Haldane, J.B.S. (1932). The Causes of Evolution. London: Longmans, Green & Co.
Haldane, J. B. S. (1955). “Population Genetics”. New Biology 18: 34–51.
Hamilton, W. D. (1963). “The evolution of altruistic behavior”. American Naturalist 97 (896): 354–356.
Hamilton, W. D. (1964). “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior”. Journal of Theoretical Biology 7 (1): 1–16.
Smith, J. M. (1964). “Group Selection and Kin Selection”. Nature 201 (4924): 1145–1147.


Anthony 06.30.12 at 11:42 pm

Turkish lacks grammatical gender and has only a single pronoun for he/she/it and so on. When I took Turkish the class consisted of one man and one woman (how’s that for a catchy phrase), both of us English speakers of bland American ethnicity. When we read a story or article either or both of us routinely got wrong the gender of its protagonist or subject. Our professor found this amusing: she had the cultural knowledge of first names that we were lacking.


Hidden Heart 06.30.12 at 11:52 pm

It’s not your brain, it’s your culture. Trans people tend to get into the habit of suspending anticipation, and then generally to not caring. We like not being prodded ourselves; that spills over into granting others the same space, and realizing again and again how little it has to do with the qualities that make people memorable to us. GLBT sub-cultures are of course all over the map, but a lot of my gay friends are almost as detached about it as most of my trans friends and I are.

There are a lot of people I know well online whose gender identity and presentation I know nothing about. And why should I? It doesn’t bear on my reactions to a lot of why I’m glad to know them. Nor do I find it making a lot of difference in face-to-face interactions. I can see how people are choosing to present themselves at the moment, and may take some note of it, but I don’t care until and unless they want to make an issue of it, for good or ill. (I don’t mean that in a judgmental sense. People’s past history including gender performance and sense of self can give rise to all kinds of neat stuff illuminated by that context. It’s just that it doesn’t have to.)

Everyone’s life situation matters sometimes, in different ways. But the sense of it being fundamental to all kinds of things and very important for others to know and categorize, that’s all culture, and potentially quite noxious culture at that.


P O'Neill 07.01.12 at 12:57 am

We had a case study on a recent CT thread where at least one commenter assumed Niamh was male.


Both Sides Do It 07.01.12 at 1:01 am

The long shadow of Peter Hacker even extends to blog comments.

As to the post: cognitive disposition, cultural training, a structural function of language, or some combination? Who knows. For me, age seems like a more central self-imposed mental construct than gender; when I find out the age of someone I’ve been reading or corresponding with differs significantly from my unconscious guess there’s a nastier shock than when the gender’s off.


DCA 07.01.12 at 1:25 am

Um, natural selection: for the past few hundred million years one of the most important things an organism does, is recognize the sex of another organism–all our ancestors were pretty good at this. Other features (other than prey and predator) not so much. So it isn’t very surprising that we fill in any lack of evidence with something.

I will be disproved if a Chinese commenter arrives and says that this doesn’t happen for him/her. The first time I dealt with a native speaker of that, I found it kind of charming that he used gendered pronouns pretty randomly, reflecting that aspect of Chinese.
We will see.


Aerin 07.01.12 at 1:41 am

I correspond with people that I haven’t met on the Internet, but, since my means for this is mostly online role play games I have a twist.

Most games have only male or female avatars. You must pick(though in some games you can make the avatar pretty androgynous). However, there isn’t any rule saying that your choice must correspond in any way with who you are outside the game.

There are people who identify as male playing female avatars, and there are people who identify as female playing male avatars. of course there are also people who identify as male playing male avatars, and people who identify as female playing female avatars. Some players are CERTAIN that they can discern which is which….but I know of at least a handful of cases where they are quite mistaken. Some people care, and want to refer to the avatar using the correct pronoun for the player’s gender. Some of us just use the avatar’s visible gender for the pronoun, or make an effort to drop any unneeded pronouns from our communication.

Most of the time I drop the pronouns, or if I need one I will reference the avatar’s gender…as that is what the person is choosing to present themselves as. However, when I meet someone online, I know that I have no clue who or what they are, unless they choose to tell me. Even then, I have only what they chose to tell me.


Neil 07.01.12 at 1:42 am

“The long shadow of Peter Hacker even extends to blog comments”.

I think even an identity theorist – and there are precious few of them these days- would agree that the locution is at best misleading. Everyone else would think it straightforwardly false.


Clay Shirky 07.01.12 at 1:53 am

You may find this of interest:

“[T]he results of these studies indicate that sex, race, age, and [wearing] glasses represents a naturally occurring salience hierarchy that is reliably present among children of preschool and early elementary school age.”


Jim Harrison 07.01.12 at 2:19 am

I get writing jobs over the Internet and often don’t know the gender of my clients. The only reason I want to know whether they are male or female is to figure out whether to address emails to Mr or Ms Chan. Maybe I’m more evolved than I thought: I never give gender a thought for any other reason.


afinetheorem 07.01.12 at 2:44 am

DCA – all the variants of Chinese distinguish between genders in their pronouns, and you can see this clearly if you write out the characters. The words “he”, “she” and “it”, however, are homophones in Mandarin, which may be why your friend had difficulty remembering which is which when speaking.


Amanda 07.01.12 at 3:19 am

I confess that one of the reasons I find it very disconcerting not to know the gender of the person I’m writing to* is that I am inclined to be modestly more guarded when talking to a man I don’t know. I relax very slightly more when talking to a woman I don’t know.

I don’t particularly like this tendency in myself, and try to consciously correct for it. Unfortunately it has actually gotten a bit more pronounced over time, in part due to my experiences of being an androgynous commenter people often perceive to be male.

*Not to the extent of asking them; I do understand and respect people’s decisions to keep gender/sex private.


bad Jim 07.01.12 at 3:24 am

In some professional contexts one is identified by two initials and a surname in gender neutral fashion*. I’ve never found the ambiguity to be a problem, although historically there has been an assumption that the authors are male.

The common use of pseudonyms on the web has taught me that it’s practically impossible to distinguish between men and women by their writing alone, and that for most topics it’s utterly irrelevant. When the subject is sexual the writers often indicate their gender or sexuality in order to claim or disclaim authority. Since I don’t take notes I can rarely remember who’s what; I don’t know whether that’s evidence for its unimportance or my senescence.

* In such cases I go by “J S Sweeney Jr” which of course is not neutral. Oops.


Both Sides Do It 07.01.12 at 3:28 am


Eh. He’s most associated not only with making that distinction a primary focus of critique but also is the most vociferous and outspoken opponent of it, right?

As to the evo. psych stuff, I can see at least two problems with applying it to this phenomenon. First is that there’s no reason to prioritize gender over age, ingroup/outgroup distinction, etc., since misjudging those would have just as drastic consequences on the likelihood of surviving to reproductive age or successfully finding a mate of reproductive age. When we’re trying to figure out reasons for why something revolves around gender distinctions as opposed to others, this is a problem.

Second is that the evo. psych analysis depends on visual and possibly auditory gender classification of another person. This machinery is at the very least complicated when we’re talking about judging or interacting with other people through text. So we’re talking about a module that adapted to process visual/auditory information into gender categories, but is still activated when we’re considering the author of something we’re reading. Mapping this out will get complicated quickly, and in the process gets further and further away from the proposed source of the phenomenon.


Joshua W. Burton 07.01.12 at 3:35 am

Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic (probably all Semitic languages?) clearly signal the speaker’s gender by verb conjugation. Spanish signals first-person plural gender, but not singular — and, of course, all these languages treat female as the “marked” gender, by using the masculine construction for mixed groups.

I recall reading somewhere that the Chinese homophones “ta(1)” for he, she, and it are neologisms introduced in the Qing dynasty to translate Western texts. My grandfather-in-law, whose native dialect was Wu (Shanghainese), mixed these pronouns up equally often in written Chinese and in spoken English.


Quinn 07.01.12 at 4:12 am

This is (part of) why it’s so hard for trans people. When I can tell other people are trying to do this, I usually just sigh a sigh of frustration. You almost certainly don’t actually need to know, but it’s culturally required.


Mark English 07.01.12 at 4:20 am

I doubt that linguistic or other cultural factors can account for the tendency of most people to have a special interest in the gender of those with whom they are communicating. Let’s leave the politics out of it. (A number of the comments are politically charged.) Admitting it’s primarily a biological thing does not necessitate taking a particular ideological stand, and nor does it necessitate denying individual diversity.


Tom West 07.01.12 at 5:15 am

Isn’t this a matter (except for formal matters) of better communication? When someone’s personally unknown, but one is hoping to make even a minimal personal connection, knowing someone’s gender can be used to enhance or limit certain aspects of communication that are statistically likely to work better/worse with men/women.

Simply put, not knowing someone’s gender leaves me twisting in the wind as to the proper levels of assertive and argumentative I should show in order to develop a good professional relationship. Likewise without knowing gender, it’s difficult to judge whether “I’m certain” means “65% sure” or “if you don’t this as a given, you will have severely questioned my technical competence”.

(tl;dr – men and women don’t always speak the same language, so of course it matters).


praisegod barebones 07.01.12 at 5:43 am

Anthony: a further twist here is that there are a bunch of fairly common Turkish names which are unisex (off the top of my head, Can, Deniz, Barış, Umut, Onur).


Andrew Smith 07.01.12 at 5:47 am

I have had the exact same experience. I had been doing similar research to someone I had thought was a man based on the name (an english man’s name) and was surprised to find out that “he” was a woman when we finally met at the ACM conference in DC a few weeks ago.

Had I bothered to google for her picture, all would have been clear but, you know, to be honest, I only google for CV by name, never picture.


Christopher M 07.01.12 at 5:53 am

Gender in language—it might be related, but might not be causal. The evidence seems to be that even the grammar of your native language only affects your way of breaking the world into concepts a little bit, at the margins. To me it’s not super plausible that the existence of gender in language causes this effect that you always conceive people as gendered, cause surely there are other grammatical distinctions that don’t impose themselves on your instinctual conception of reality? Just speculating, it seems like the man/woman distinction is drilled into most of us over & over, really really often, from the moment we’re born. I mean, I bet a typical kid doesn’t go more than a few hours on average, if even that, without getting some reminder that men & women are different kinds. Ideas about other categories (like race) can be just as emphatic but maybe they tend to come up a little less constantly in people’s lives.


Hidden Heart 07.01.12 at 6:44 am

I notice myself getting really, very skeptical about any explanation involving “hard-wired” about this kind of phenomenon. It’s not that I think we have no actual instincts. It’s that I see very little way to actually distinguish them from the many layers of culture woven in and around them, and that I think we have very little collective sense of possibility.

I’d compare this particular topic – awareness of another’s gender and how important that is – to some of Michael Berube’s posts about how little we know about what people with Down’s and other developmental complications are actually capable of, as well as to the accumulated weight of women’s accomplishments in athletic and academic endeavors. Some of us have had to become more aware of assumptions that can lead us astray, and we find that…what the heck, a lot of what seemed necessary isn’t. I don’t think there’s any basis at this point to say much about what we’re wired to do, until we’ve seem some serious widespread effort at alternatives.


Phil 07.01.12 at 7:59 am

I assume that everyone (for whom one or more of these markers is lacking) is White, male, heterosexual and able-bodied; there may even be other default settings, I don’t know. Being w., m., h. and a.-b. myself, I’ve got no incentive to be more imaginative about other people.

I’ve never had major gender-shock, but I was genuinely taken aback to find that someone I’d been having fairly intense theoretical discussions with was Black, particularly as I found it out through random googling (so I don’t know if s/he knows I know – and obviously there’s no non-offensive way to bring it up). Why was I taken aback? It’s a sort of “oh, so s/he’s *not* like me after all” reaction – even though the common ground I originally found with this person is entirely unaffected, & unchanged. Very odd, and a bit disquieting.


Random Lurker 07.01.12 at 8:02 am

I believe that basically there is a constant phisical attraction between any man and any woman, but as a consequence we have to neutralize this in normal interactions with people of the other sex. In short I need to know the sex of the person I’m speaking with because, if she is a woman, I risk to do a sexual approach without realizing it if I’m not on alarm.
Also, I assumed that Kieran was a female name and was surprised to realize that he is in fact a male (because he IS a male, isn’t. he? Please tell me!)


Scott Martens 07.01.12 at 8:15 am

I would resist Whorfian explanations, not because they’re impossible but because without strong evidence in their favor they tend to make you come to bad conclusions about the world. It’s a bit like race and gender science: It’s not biologically unthinkable that women or people of certain ethnicities might be disposed to having a biological trait is non-obvious and influences their lives in some way, but drawing the conclusion that that explains something without very strong evidence in its favor tends heavily to lead to sexist and racist conclusions. Whorfian explanations are not impossible, but have the same general tendency to lend themselves to dumb beliefs about people.

We live in a very gendered world, one that is far more gendered than raced or aged. This is perhaps even more true in academia than in ordinary life. I don’t think there is any need for a deeper explanation than that: Gender is a much more important characteristic of people for you that race or age or ethnicity, at least with respect to people you deal with professionally and academically.


Data Tutashkhia 07.01.12 at 9:16 am

Sure, you create a mental picture of the person on the other end. And age and gender are essential markers.


Neil 07.01.12 at 10:23 am

Both sides now,PH is well known as a Wittgenstein interpreter, and the point is a Wittgensteinain commonplace. Wittgenstein is a whole lot better known than PH. Further, almost everyone accepts that Wittgensteinian point. Crediting it to PH is a bit like crediting Andy Clark with the claim that human beings are always already thrown.


chris y 07.01.12 at 10:51 am

I assume that everybody on line that I haven’t met in real life, seen pictures of, etc., and who hasn’t said anything about their experience of being a man or a woman, is a distributed AI coded by a genetic algorithm. Obviously at one level I don’t actually think they are, but I find it’s a helpful way to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about strangers. It works for nationality, culture and credentials as well as X and Y chromosomes.


Afu 07.01.12 at 11:46 am


malilo 07.01.12 at 11:50 am

Richard Sumner: “Now what is the first thing you notice in a person?”
Bunny Watson: “Whether the person is male or female.”

In anonymous forums, I rarely care what gender a poster is (even when talking about prickly gender issues), but I do find that some (small) percentage of posters trip a switch that makes me assign a gender even when I don’t know from obvious context. There’s a sort of “manly” and “womanly” writing style that I recognize subconsciously. The weird thing is that I don’t think I would have even realized this, except for the number of times I have been wrong (then confused, then confused about why I was confused, etc). I suspect what I am recognizing is really personality types that are “typically” male or female – take INTJ and ENFP from M-B types, just to throw something out there. These do have slightly skewed M/F ratios, but are certainly not overwhelmingly one gender or the other. But this is just a physicists naive musing.

When I read scientific papers, I don’t have a gender in mind. This does change when it comes time to discuss the paper with others, then I usually default to “he” if I don’t know. On the other hand I have also caught myself using “she” for *surnames* ending in -a, which is kind of weird.


Scott Martens 07.01.12 at 11:57 am

I’m a little confused about the discussion of Chinese. Chinese pronouns are ungendered in speech in all variants of the language, and include inanimate objects, and I think it’s been that way at least since the era of Confucius. The written distinction is a recent affectation.

It’s a good example of how non-sexist language does not lead to non-sexist behaviour.


Afu 07.01.12 at 12:00 pm

“The poetLiu Bannong

messed up the link.


Belle Waring 07.01.12 at 12:25 pm

Simply put, not knowing someone’s gender leaves me twisting in the wind as to the proper levels of assertive and argumentative [sic] I should show in order to develop a good professional relationship. Likewise without knowing gender, it’s difficult to judge whether “I’m certain” means “65% sure” or “if you don’t [sic] this as a given, you will have severely questioned my technical competence”.
Tom West: if you were a feminist you might find it easier to develop good working relationships with your peers. As it stands, when egalitarian-minded fellow professionals of both genders learn of your patronizing and unpleasant assumptions, they are likely to blow you off on the grounds that you are a sexist douche.


harry b 07.01.12 at 12:47 pm

I took Tom West’s comments to imply a kind of reverse sexism — he thinks his female colleagues are reasonable and his male colleagues are arseholes. But I wasn’t certain.

Sorry I can’t see you Ingrid, I’m enmeshed in family obligations.


Z 07.01.12 at 1:01 pm

Do you recognize this phenomenon?

I would certainly wonder about a regular correspondent. I remember wondering for a long time about a colleague called Lassina for instance. But I also think that in a prolonged conversation with someone, I would end up wondering about age as well, and also perhaps nationality and/or place of residence-I did eventually sort of checked this for most CT contributors for instance. On the other hand, I don’t think I systematically seek to ascribe a gender to ambiguous names in all situation (I don’t think I do it when reading articles for instance).

Would it have something to do with the fact that our languages are ‘gendered’?

I would definitely say yes. Being kind of formal, I start all my correspondence with Dear X… In my own language, this is impossible if you don’t know the gender of your interlocutor, so it starts here. I remember recently double-checking if I was right that Fei was feminine before writing in French while I have written several e-mails in English to someone called Reinie without bothering to verify my initial assumption on the gender of this name. Even in English, it can rapidly be awkward if you don’t know whether to use Mr. or Mrs.


Lurking under cover 07.01.12 at 1:06 pm

I’m distrustful of the ‘evolution’ explanation. Just now I’ve been reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, who is spending a lot of time in the early chapters distinguishing the ‘automatic’ response from the ‘calculation’ response to external stimuli. Much of what Kahneman says, so far, discusses how the automatic system is programmed — and how it’s programming can be changed.

I am reminded of a joke (one which works much better if spoken, not written):

“How do you say M-A-C-D-O-N-A-L-D ?”

“Mick DAHN ld”

“How do you say M-A-C-N-A-M-A-R-A ?”

“Mack nuh MARE uh”

“How do you say M-A-C-H-I-N-E ?”

(take a minute before scrolling down)

as you read it, probably you heard “machine”, but when the joke is spoken, the vast majority will say “Mack HINE” … which is all a matter of priming.

From “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” we have been primed to regard gender as important — and also, as fixed. From at least the early days of television (and probably long before that) the culture as a whole has been programmed to assume that all doctors are male and all nurses are female, etc. This has been largely because it’s convenient to simplify characters, and of course it comes out of the biases of the people producing the shows.

It seems likely that our assumptions about gender come from such social programming, reinforced by jokes about boys with so-called “girls’ names”.


Fred Cairns 07.01.12 at 2:47 pm

Let me assure you that this problem is not confined to people in remote contact. I once (or twice) ran a stall at fetes, drawing pencil portraits in fifteen minutes at a time. One child came forward with a diamond earring. I fussed with my pencils and sharpeners for a minute while I constructed a question that might give me a clue to the sex of the individual. I think I asked “What is your name?” It turned out to be a girl. My wife, who was taking the money and minding the customers, did a double-take – clearly she was no more clear on the sex of the child than I was. It didn’t make much of a difference in conversation with the customer, but it did make a difference in how I approached the portrait. It’s a minefield.


tomslee 07.01.12 at 2:56 pm

My defaults are, like Phil #28, that others are white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied. Every now and then I convince myself that I am too sophisticated for all that, but then I find out (for example) that Steve McQueen (artist and film director) is black, or that an Indian researcher I quoted the other day is female, and I do a double take and slide back to square one.


Omega Centauri 07.01.12 at 3:36 pm

I guess if communications go beyond pure technical matters, empathy gets into the picture. If I can picture where he/she is coming from, what sorts of life experiences and struggles they had to go through to get to the present place, then a deeper level of bonding can take place. Even the thought, “if times places and circumstances been different maybe he/she would have been that someone special” can have an impact on the ability to connect empathicly.

Interestingly the only really startling experience involved race. I’d dealt with a certain individual for a couple of years -including mostly phone conversations, and I’d always pictured him as white (for the time and profession -overwhelmingly likely), and was startled when we actually met -he was black -it took me a couple of awkward minutes to get over it.


lupita 07.01.12 at 4:16 pm

I have detected a gender bias on this thread. The posters who have admitted to having a default image of a male have identified as males. Not that I speak for my sex, but what is the default image of women? I do form a mental image of most posters. Some I see as women with a beautiful smile and long, curly hair; others as fat, bald men wearing a cardigan and sitting at their computer. Some are monsters, some sexless androids. The images change. I obviously would never be flabbergasted to find out that a poster does not look anything like the image I have formed since they only serve the purpose of keeping track of who said what on a talkboard.

Looking back at my images, their sex is skewed towards women. If I look carefully at that hairy monster, I can see a little bow attached to her head.


Theophylact 07.01.12 at 4:37 pm

I am often tripped up by what I expect is an Anglophone assumption that given names ending in -a are female, and ones in -o are male. I’ve learned, of course, that the reverse is the case with Japanese.

(A plot element based on this mistaken assumption figures in the late Michael Dibdin’s A Long Finish, involving the name “Andrea”.)


lupita 07.01.12 at 4:49 pm

Analyzing my images further as to race, I am not surprised to note that almost all are of the brown, mixed-race variety, what Americans generically describe as “ethnic”.


JanieM 07.01.12 at 5:17 pm

For Fred Cairns (@42 currently)

I wonder what you think Hidden Heart’s (@8) phrase “gender presentation” means….?

If you have time and are interested, check out the book with my all-time favorite title: Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. The title is a big clue in its own right, but the book is wonderful: funny, poignant, enteraining, and enlightening.

As someone who lives in a female body but has often been mistaken for a male, and who considers “men, women, and the rest of us” to be the best pithy summary of a difficult topic I’ve ever seen, I agree that the subject is a minefield, though I suspect for a quite different mix of reasons than yours. I totally get why pronouns and titles are difficult if you (the general you, including me) don’t know a person’s gender, but I don’t understand why you (the specific you, Fred C.) have to know the gender of a customer before you can draw what’s in front of your eyes.

If I come up to you and you can’t tell whether I’m a boy or a girl, why does that matter? Are you going to put the quick-portrait equivalent of baby clothes in pink and blue into the drawing, or what? If so, consider the possibilities of green, yellow, purple, etc. If not, what is going on? Are you prescribing the your portrait subjects as much as describing them? If so, and speaking as a person who fits pretty handily into the “the rest of us” bin, I’d suggest considering a little rebalancing of the prescription/description ratio. If I asked you to draw my portrait, I’d expect to find me in it, not your idea of a girl, or of a boy for that matter.


JanieM 07.01.12 at 5:31 pm

And — I don’t mean to say this is easy, or to pick on Fred. In my own imagining of the world, I constantly catch myself going back and forth between the conventional, simplistic, dominant “he and she” framework and the more complex, nuanced, and (in my opinion, since I live it every day) accurate “men, women, and the rest of us” formulation.


tomslee 07.01.12 at 6:02 pm

I don’t understand why you (the specific you, Fred C.) have to know the gender of a customer before you can draw what’s in front of your eyes.

Because, I would guess, we never just see with our eyes or draw just what’s in front of us. Many of us (myself included) have experienced something similar with sound. Someone from a different culture will tell me their name over the phone, but I can only repeat it back to them if they spell it. Why would I need the spelling before I can repeat what I heard? I don’t know, but I do.


bob mcmanus 07.01.12 at 6:14 pm

46.1:I was going to say that about Japanese names, but since Yasujiro Ozu was one of the first to pop in my head, I decided to refrain.

2000 Male Japanese First Names

2000 Female Japanese First Names

There are a lot of unisex names.


bob mcmanus 07.01.12 at 6:25 pm

Uhh, of course, all proper names are in Kanji, and the kanji (2 characters) for “Jiro” mean “second son”, so they aren’t all unisex

“Hiro” on the other hand is unisex, but can represented by three different single characters


bob mcmanus 07.01.12 at 6:36 pm

As far as the topic at hand, if I were unclear on a name (Sam, Leslie, Bobby) and made an assumption about gender, I am of the school that would look at what I read in the text (or what I didn’t, what clues were left out that I would be expecting)…tone, grammar, syntax, vocabulary…and what biases or social conditioning lead me to interpret it a specific way.

After twenty years on the nets, I don’t worry about it much. You are all bots.


JanieM 07.01.12 at 6:43 pm

tomslee — I’m the same way. In my case, I think the experience you describe has something to do with being able to take in and remember information visually much more readily than by ear.

But I consider that to be a lack in the audio department, not a virtue or something I have to just accept resignedly. So I do work a little at getting better at hearing.

I was suggesting something similar in relation to Fred’s comment. That is, I was trying to make the point that it’s valuable and maybe even important to make some effort to take people on their own terms, to honor their own framework for themselves, rather than to be always imposing our own.


bob mcmanus 07.01.12 at 6:45 pm

(If you want some fun, load up Rikaichan and hover over some of the kanji characters in 51. The character for “Hiro-2,” Halpern 2327, can also represent Akira, Satoru, Matoko, and Yururuka, among others.


JanieM 07.01.12 at 6:54 pm

I mean, if portrait artist A can only draw either a boy or a girl, then “the rest of us” can just go to portrait artist X – if we can find that person. Given the numbers and the state of the world in general, that’s probably not going to make any difference to whether A can make a living as an artist or not, so it’s no big deal as far as A is concerned. But for “the rest of us,” it’s business as usual in the marginalization and invisibility department. Not so much fun, really.


Salient 07.01.12 at 7:04 pm

Sort of recapitulating Clay’s and Lurking under cover’s suggestions — in the US at least, one of the first and most prominent distinguishing characteristics a child learns is whether they are a girl or a boy, so it seems like it’s probably the earliest categorization scheme any child learns. It’s not just that you learn you’re a girl or boy, you learn that everyone is either a girl or boy, it’s a sorting characteristic. Whereas a child might not learn to categorize and sort according to other distinctions, even if they learn to perceive them (a white child growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood might recognize the neighbor’s black kid as black, but not consciously self-identify as white; even if they self-identify as white, they might not see the world as composed of black people and white people, or whites and nonwhites or whatever). At that young an age, lots of kids seem eager for any schematics that allow them to organize and sort the world of people (presumably because they don’t ~have~ any schematics yet, but have just developed the brainpower that enables schematic thinking). As a kid I guess age is also a pretty salient characteristic, but it makes sense that that lessens over time.

chris y’s comment and bob mcmanus’s follow-up sounded bizarre at first but really that’s a perfectly good description of what my brain^1^ does too, even applied to self-conception. Obviously there’s an actual human being doing the thinking and the typing, but it’s almost impossible for me to create or sustain any visual mental image of that person even when I have been told some of their various identity characteristics. Online people (and increasingly over time even offline people) are the things they say.

^1^I dunno quite what Wax Banks was upset about upthread, but I feel frustrated with my brain all the time, and it’s a markedly different feeling than being frustrated with oneself…


JanieM 07.01.12 at 7:06 pm

I want to be clear that I know it’s a minefield, where you can ever so easily be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And it’s especially tricky with children, where you have not only the child’s self-image and presentation to think about, but the parents’ notions as well.

I know a little girl who, after cancer treatment made her bald, was mistaken for a boy, and was incensed. She was neither boy nor “the rest of us” in her own mind, and she was upset that that wasn’t obvious to everyone else. Then again, I know of a little boy who has been convinced he’s a girl since the time he was about three years old. Now there’s a minefield, especially in a family that had never before considered the possibility/reality of that experience.


bob mcmanus 07.01.12 at 7:06 pm

Finally, here is a thread on the polite use Japanese First Names

Shorter: Don’t do it. Don’t think too much about it. Last name + honorific always, and if pressured, say you’re shy.

That is my own personally preferred style, without the honorific, for a lot of reasons. Robeyns. Farrell. Healy. Holbo. Waring.


Both Sides Do It 07.01.12 at 8:02 pm


Wax Banks’ point was that the phrasing “my brain needs to know your sex” and “my brain needs to know the sex of the people I’m corresponding with” confuses processes in the brain for states that only a person can have. “My stomach feels hungry” or “my foot is experiencing pain” are the same thing; these things can’t feel hunger or pain, or experience need. Only the overarching person can, and there are a host of conceptual mistakes that are easy to make if this distinction is lost. This is completely compatible with you getting different kinds of upset at the functioning of different physical parts (foot, stomach, brain etc) and functioning of different aspects of your self or personality.

Neil’s right in that this comes out of Wittgenstein, but rather in the same way that Arabic scholars transmitted Aristotle back to European intellectuals while they were trying to quantify angelic waltzing on sewing equipment, Hacker rescued this Wittgensteinian conception from history and forced it back into the neuroscience community after it had a few decades of making these kinds of conceptual mistakes.


bianca steele 07.01.12 at 8:49 pm

I’m going to side with Waring on the West question. How is it even slightly plausible that there’s something called “men’s language” and “women’s language” that’s constant across the globe, all age groups, etc.?


bianca steele 07.01.12 at 9:01 pm

Actually, one of the biggest shocks I’ve had online was a poster who put himself out as someone who’d studied the topic of discussion for years, who turned out to be fifteen years old.


Maggie 07.02.12 at 1:06 am

As one of “the rest of us,” I am very interested in the fact that simply asking is considered completely out of bounds; that it represents such a dire extreme that the very possibility of being driven to it is a “minefield.” Why do we think that it is unimaginably rude to simply query gender? I suppose many, especially in a group like this, would say it’s because of the feminist idea that gender should never matter. And in your circles it may indeed be important to be seen to uphold that norm, which in itself is a good one. But that kind of feminism is recent, and rather elite (and the idea that it’s fine for there to actually be no [binary] fact of the matter even more so); it can’t account for our culture’s universal, top-to-bottom, adamant taboo against querying gender. The real reason is that it’s considered pretty much the worst possible insult to tell a person that their presentation is ambiguous. And the only people who do ask are either completely ignorant of mores (usually children) or actually desire to level the insult. (As you can see by the fact that such people, as often as not, direct the question at people – usually women and trans people – whose presentation is not actually ambiguous, just not up to snuff per the speaker’s standards for the person’s known sex) And while I am very sympathetic to the trans community’s desire to put inappropriate queries – what sex are you ‘really’? have you had ‘the surgery’? etc – even further out of bounds, I can also see where a dogmatic insistence on gender blindness carries liabilities similar to a previous generation’s “colorblindness,” and can further ingrain the idea that any respectable person inevitably has a binary gender, even if I personally can’t tell which.

More simply: as a female-bodied person, I am not offended when somebody accidently calls me “sir,” but quite offended by their embarrassment and excessive apologies once they get a closer look. Because that says me looking as I do is so wrong that to have reflected it back to me is an insult


JanieM 07.02.12 at 1:40 am

More simply: as a female-bodied person, I am not offended when somebody accidently calls me “sir,” but quite offended by their embarrassment and excessive apologies once they get a closer look. Because that says me looking as I do is so wrong that to have reflected it back to me is an insult

Well said.


krippendorf 07.02.12 at 1:42 am

There’s a lot of work on this in social psychology (see, e.g., Ridgeway 2011 or 2012). Short version (from a nonspecialist) is that gender serves as a master status in interactions. When we meet someone new, we immediately and subconsciously code his or her gender, and use this info — whether correct or not — as a cognitive shortcut that informs our interactions. It’s not surprising that we do this in internet-based interactions, too. And the context shapes our assumptions about gender: in academia, we assume male … and the odds still are that we’ll be right.

Remember the SNL skits about Pat? It was funny (by SNL standards) because the audience could safely laugh at the actors who were put in uncomfortable interactions because they couldn’t code Pat’s gender.


Hidden Heart 07.02.12 at 2:15 am

Maggie: Reasonable questions, seriously. The matching one is: Under what circumstances are you prepared to take “I’m not interested in telling you that” as an answer? If people are prepared to do that, then I don’t mind them asking. It’s the asking with the presumption that they are owed the kind of answer they’re seeing that makes life unpleasant for some of us.

And of course if you’re prepared to take “not your business” as an answer, then you may realize too that you need to ask less often than you thought.


Hidden Heart 07.02.12 at 2:17 am

PS: There are times and people with whom I’m quite willing to talk about my own experience and some of the spread of others among trans people I know, stuff in the literature, and so on. And there are people I never want to talk about it with, and times that I don’t want to talk about it with anyone. I presume that most people have something of the sort at least sometimes – the perpetually open “ask me anything” guy isn’t that representative of the human race.


Meredith 07.02.12 at 6:28 am

“And now it turns out that this person is a man, whereas I had assumed he was a woman.”
Why, exactly, had you made that assumption? (Probably not just because of some phonological accident in the person’s name — though probably akin to assumptions each of us has made at one time or another.) That’s the question that deserves interrogation here, IMHO. As well as the questions: why does it matter to you (any of us), under what specific conditions, if your interlocutor is male or female? Really, does it matter over an exchange about some technical details, for instance, as opposed to the framing of larger questions?


ajay 07.02.12 at 8:36 am

Being kind of formal, I start all my correspondence with Dear X… In my own language, this is impossible if you don’t know the gender of your interlocutor, so it starts here

In academic English, of course, you can get past this by simply addressing them as Dr X, neatly evading the male/female and married/unmarried questions, as well as avoiding offending them; no one minds being called Dr if they aren’t actually a DPhil. (The “DPhil by acclamation”, it’s called.)

But, IIRC, not possible in German, because it’s Doktor/Doktorin? Or have they got rid of that now?


ajay 07.02.12 at 8:38 am

I do form a mental image of most posters. Some I see as women with a beautiful smile and long, curly hair; others as fat, bald men wearing a cardigan and sitting at their computer. Some are monsters, some sexless androids.

And it is well known that Cosma Shalizi is actually a superintelligent shade of the colour blue, who can only post on CT if first refracted into a free-standing prism.


Katherine 07.02.12 at 10:50 am

I assume that everyone (for whom one or more of these markers is lacking) is White, male, heterosexual and able-bodied; there may even be other default settings, I don’t know. Being w., m., h. and a.-b. myself, I’ve got no incentive to be more imaginative about other people.

Might I suggest that you, and others, do this not because you are yourself white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied etc. but because that is the safest and easiest thing to do. In doing so you have assigned the highest social status to someone. This is a default because of power and status relations in our particular world, not because everyone assigns their own personal default that looks like themselves.


Phil 07.02.12 at 11:17 am

Katherine – you certainly may, as it’s what I was thinking myself. I specifically didn’t say I defaulted to the social default setting[1] *because* of my own attributes, but that my own attributes don’t give me any incentive to override the defaults. A woman reading comments from ‘Kris’ or ‘Jan’ is more likely to entertain the possibility that K. or J. is female, because when it comes to women reading blogs she’s her own existence-proof. (Now I’m wondering about the long and snippy ah-but-you-*also*-said-type argument I had with a ‘Kris’ a while back – a third commenter actually said “you two should get a room” at one point. I was sure I was talking to a man at the time, too. Maybe I was the only one.)

[1] Framing this as the “highest social status” – and hence the least likely to be taken as demeaning – is a good way to think about it, if rather disturbing in its implications.


Mercy 07.02.12 at 12:21 pm

What’s most striking about the evolutionary explanations is how tentative and bloodless they are – there’s a tendency for you to have evolved to observe gender in other people and display certain behaviours at certain frequencies- all very well if you’re dealing with actual data and don’t want to step beyond it, but with suppositions and musings it amounts to little more than scientific drag.

Why not simply say what one means: you care about what gender someone is because some part of you is wondering whether there’s a chance of sexytimes in the near future, and wants to know if it should go back to sleep or not. Which circumvents the question of “is this behaviour evolved or not” – always a second order question when considering whether it exists in the first place.

So, thesis: whether it’s darwin’s ghost or watching When Harry Met Sally at an early age, some part of some people always wants to know whether whoever they are talking to is a potential sexual partner, even if that’s the last thing from their conscious mind*. Stated like that, all sorts of potential tests crop up: do bisexuals care less? Those in committed relationships? If you hear the other person is in a committed relationship, does this reduce the unease over not knowing their gender? And so on.

*Or maybe it’s a second order effect: you spend desperate teenage years trying to wheedle people’s gender out of them during faceless correspondence, and though the drive disappears with age and wisdom, the habit remains.


Fred Cairns 07.02.12 at 1:13 pm

@JamieM – I don’t disagree, and I’ve pondered why it should make a difference to me. There are two parts to the answer: one is that I tend to chat to the people sitting, and the other is that the portrait is for the parent, and it is the parent’s expectation that I have to fulfil.
As a representational artist (however amateur) it is important to draw exactly what you see and not what your expectations imagine – it’s one major difference between naive and representational art. The matter of portraits do bear different treatments: compare the work of Bacon, Freud and Sargent. Not to say I’m comparable to them, but it might make a difference of emphasis in what I represent.
You agree it’s a minefield. I’m glad my comment extended the discussion.


Earwig 07.02.12 at 1:16 pm

More simply: as a female-bodied person, I am not offended when somebody accidently calls me “sir,” but quite offended by their embarrassment and excessive apologies once they get a closer look. Because that says me looking as I do is so wrong that to have reflected it back to me is an insult

Well said.

Or perhaps not so well said.

Is it not at least possible that someone else’s embarrassment and apology result not from the their perception of your “wrongness,” but rather from their assumption that many people are in fact insulted if what they feel is their own singular gender is not obvious or could be so easily mistaken?

Yes, even so, the reaction may be worse than the mistake. But the source of the reaction may not be at all what you have characterized.


liberal japonicus 07.02.12 at 1:23 pm

Bob’s right about how Japanese don’t use first names at all, but, at least in the context of students, girls family names always get the suffix of -san and boys get the suffix -kun, even though you are using a last name. In fact, I’ve heard Japanese teachers say (in Japanese) “Sato-kun, excuse me, I mean Sato-san”. (It is generally rude to address a female student with the male suffix, but not as big a gaffe to address a male with the suffix -san)

Of course, these suffixes aren’t usually applied when the person is older than you unless there are hierarchical reasons to do so. I do martial arts, and there are now more people taking up martial arts at a later age, which then has the teachers referring to them as kun in the context of time of study, but it doesn’t come out easily sometimes.

There is something that I think is related and that is that female first names that work as ‘English’ names are much more common than male names that do the same. In fact, I don’t think that there are but a tiny handful of male names that work in both English and Japanese (Ken and Joji (George) are the two I can think of, and Ken is really a shortened version of something like Kenjiro or Ken-ichi) A lot going on there, I think


liberal japonicus 07.02.12 at 1:24 pm

not sure how I got those strike thrus, but they were not intended.


ajay 07.02.12 at 3:09 pm

lj: I think that if you use two hyphens then the software here interprets it as a strikethrough of everything between them.

-like this-


kharris 07.02.12 at 7:27 pm

“He has a name that I am not familiar with, but I had just somehow assumed this was a woman’s name.”

You didn’t know Kieran is a guy?


mollymooly 07.02.12 at 9:53 pm

I worked for a European company with an offshored IT department. When I was emailing or IMing someone whose exotic name I could not decode for gender, it did not matter to me at all; though perhaps it served to enhance my prejudice of offshoring as a dehumanised process. One difficulty I did have was decoding which of multiple names was the forename-equivalent for greetings.


ajay 07.03.12 at 8:35 am

79: No, Kieran is totally a woman’s name. Like that English actress, Kieran Ightley.


Phil 07.03.12 at 11:26 am

you spend desperate teenage years trying to wheedle people’s gender out of them during faceless correspondence, and though the drive disappears with age and wisdom, the habit remains.

Don’t think it can be that. During my desperate teenage years I devoted large amounts of time to a number of things related to my own & others’ gender, but playing “what sex is that person?” wasn’t one of them – there weren’t that many opportunities in the 1970s. Not in Croydon, anyway.


Maggie 07.03.12 at 3:07 pm

Earwig, I see what you are saying, so I guess I should clarify that what offends me is the general state of mores that leads the person to react that way, not the individual’s failure (really inability) to defy it in a given instance. The desire not to offend is good, but the binary-gendered majority’s estimate of what may be offensive is not. Most ambiguous adults know exactly how we look and are unsurprised, even if not pleased, by innocent misgendering. (And BTW, some of us cultivate our androgyny, and actually are pleased.) The fear of giving offense is based on gender-normatives’ horror of androgyny, not concern for the feelings of actually existing androgynes. Consider also that SNL’s “Pat” skits depend on Pat’s stupid cluelessness as to the nature of the others’ problem, which is an offensive and inaccurate stereotype, which may be related to the converse stereotype of the developmentally disabled as asexual.

Imagine you were white, and somebody incorrectly assumed you were of an ethnic minority, perhaps addressing you in the wrong language. Would you be more offended (if at all) by the mistake itself, or if the person, once corrected, fell over themselves with excessive obsequious apologies? What would such apologies indicate about underlying attitudes toward minorities, whether the person’s own or his expectations of what the average white’s attitudes?


Tom West 07.04.12 at 1:12 pm

Just to clarify, my experience is that the majority of most males use “I’m certain” in day-to-day conversation quite casually (“I’m absolutely positive” and further qualifiers are used when their certainty rises well beyond that). Conversely, not taking “I’m certain” particularly seriously (again, in casual conversation) is not taken lightly by many women (i.e. taken as questioning their competence).

I consider this merely a convention of speech (a “couple of things” goes up to five for many people). I find it interesting that Ms. Waring would dismiss such a common speech usage as demeaning when it’s simply a convention (albeit by mostly by one gender). Certainly points to how it’s easy to dismiss the other based on differences in their common speech usage.


Colin Reid 07.04.12 at 2:50 pm

It’s one thing if you don’t know their gender identity and don’t have a good way of guessing, but what if you find out, and it turns out to be something other than ‘male’ or ‘female’? I have met at least one ‘they’, and I did have to concentrate to use the preferred pronoun in conversation.


ajay 07.04.12 at 2:57 pm

84: in my experience “I’m certain that X” actually means “I am not at all certain that X”; if you are certain that X, you just say “X”.


Tom West 07.04.12 at 5:44 pm

ajay: Agreed among men.

But I’ve twice offended women when I assumed my “pretty certain” (p=0.75) was greater than their “certain” (p turned out to be 1.0).

And. Ms. Waring provided ample proof of the male-female speech divide here when it was clear that she could not even conceive of “certain” meaning anything but p=1.0. Even men who are very careful about using “certain” themselves know that coming from j. random male, “certain” is likely to mean p=0.65 on a good day. (Again, speaking casually.)


Doctor Science 07.04.12 at 8:05 pm

I posted a reply at Obsidian Wings: Getting used to not knowing.


John Quiggin 07.05.12 at 9:43 pm

A somewhat stilted, but still correct way of dealing with correspondence problems is to use the full name “Dear John Quiggin” on first letter, then switch to first name once the respondent does.


John Quiggin 07.06.12 at 4:59 am

I just had the interesting experience of discovering Siva Vaidhyanathan is female , then discovering that he isn’t really. I also only just found out that Eric Holder is African-American. I can’t say that either of these had much effect, though my change in belief about Siva was maybe too brief to matter.

One case of this kind I can remember being surprised by was meeting Karl Smith, and finding out that he is African-American. Apart from the obvious default assumption for US economists, I realize that I thought of Karl (unlike Carl) as a “white” name.

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