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[personal profile] tigerfort
This entry has now been superseded by this one.

Following a discussion on twitter, it seemed useful to get my thoughts on this down in longer and more coherent form than is possible there. First, a couple of caveats:

  1. Other than mentioning that they matter, I'm not going to touch non-english-language titles, because I don't know enough about the subject.

  2. The gender section is much shorter than the one for titles. That's not because gender is less important, it's because there are very few circumstances in which you should be asking about someone's gender at all.

  3. I'm not going to try and define the perfect solution. I'm pretty sure there isn't a perfect general solution. (There may well be perfect solutions for certain situations - but I think that mostly applies to small groups of people who already know and trust each other, and therefore don't need advice from some rando on the internet.)

  4. This is complicated, difficult, and a central part of people's identities. I'm almost certainly going to say something wrong/stupid/hurtful somewhere. If there's something in here that you think falls into one of those categories, then (a) I'm sorry and (b) I'd be very grateful if you feel able let me know, so that I can correct my error (and avoid repeating it).

(TL;DR caveat: what follows is not an attempt to produce a definitive right answer. It's a proposal for a bare acceptable minimum when dealing with an exclusively Anglophone-native audience.)

So: you've got a website/survey/business database/list of supporters/whatever, and you want to ask about the gender and title of address for the people on it.


Unless you're my chosen medic discussing treatment options[1] or a sociology researcher (or, ok, working for certain government departments who are legally required to ask[2]), you don't need to ask about my gender. Really, you don't. If I'm signing up to your gardening newsletter, my gender, sexuality, skin colour, eye colour and favourite album are all equally relevant. "Doing it right", in this case, means not doing it at all.

If you're determined to ask - perhaps you actually are a sociology researcher, and the self-identified gender of people answering your questions is potentially an important variable - then the absolute bare minimum you should be offering in the way of answers is a set of four: "Male", "Female", "Other", and "Prefer not to say". (If you absolutely have to have an answer, because it's vital to your research, then please make that clear at the start rather than letting me get all the way through answering your questions before closing the tab/binning the form when I find I can't tick a "none of your business" box. My willingness to complete research surveys has been substantially decreased over the years by having my time wasted like that.)

Note that "Other" and "Prefer not to say" are not the same, and can never be combined. Someone who ticks "prefer not to say" almost certainly self-identifies as something (whether that be M, F, some combination of those, or something else), but doesn't want to tell you what. Someone who ticks "other" has expressed their desire to tell you that they do not self-identify as binary M or F, and might well have chosen to be more specific if you'd given them the option. If they ticked "other", they explicitly did prefer to say.

[1] in which case, you probably already know the answer; you also hopefully understand that the physical, neurological, and (most often relevant) biochemical issues are rather more complicated than [M/F: choose one]. But that's beyond the scope of this essay.

[2] our laws on the subject need changing, both because said departments generally don't actually have any need to know and because they're usually only allowed to accept "M" or "F" as an answer. But that's beyond the scope of this essay too.


If you want to try and produce a drop-menu (or equivalent) of titles for people of all cultures world-wide to choose from: you're either a genius, or going to fail horribly. If you succeed in producing a good one, there will probably be plenty of volunteers to co-sign your Nobel peace prize nomination. Honorifics are, to say the least, extremely complicated, and getting them wrong is generally an effective way of insulting someone in a very personal and hurtful fashion. Calling someone "Mister X" instead of "Monsieur X" might just be ignored as 'typical Anglophone ignorance', but it is rude; "Mister X" instead of "X-sensei" is considerably worse. Using "Mister X" for, say, an Inuit, Navajo, Parlevar, or Kikuyu instead of learning the correct form of address can amount to deliberate extension of the cultural erasure the natives of much of the world have suffered at the hands of European conquerors and european-descended settlers. (Which is to say, it goes beyond rude to linguistic violence, and you shouldn't do it.) To avoid extending the scope of this post far beyond my own knowledge I'm going to restrict myself to dealing with English-language titles. That (hopefully obviously) means that any solution suggested here is only suitable for use in an exclusively anglophone environment; it's going to be automatically inadequate as soon as any other language or cultural group needs to be considered. You may be able to apply the same logic to get something useful for non-english-exclusive groups, but you really want (non-privileged) native speakers to check out whatever you come up with, because honorifics work differently in different cultures.

So, titles for an english-native audience. The simple, obvious, easy solution is to provide a write-in box and accept whatever someone tells you the appropriate title for them is. As pointed out by [personal profile] naath and [personal profile] sparrowsion in the comments, there has to be an open write-in for the name anyway, so write-in titles don't actually make any major new problems here. Just let people choose what title they want (including no title at all; do not insist that the box have something in it) and everyone will be happy.

[Deleted text: Which works fine so long as you're certain that people are only signing up themselves; at the point where some bigoted a**hole starts signing up Jews, or Imams, or female journalists, and getting you to send them emails with insults in the first line, you have a problem rather bigger than you'd ever have achieved with a drop-down list. So that solution only works if you've got some confidence that you can trust all your incoming data. If you can, great! If your form is publically accessible, you can't rely on it not being abused. It would be lovely if you could, but you can't, so please don't make it easy for the bigots to involve you in their hate-crimes.]

The first question you should ask (whether you're using a drop-menu or write-in) is "why do I need this?", because the answer is probably that you don't. You don't need a title to log me into your webshop, or for collating the answers to your sociology survey. If I'm signing up for your newsletter, I know that the same email is being sent to lots of people, and the fact that your mail-merge system puts [title][name] at the top (instead of diving straight in with "This week's special offers") doesn't make me think it's a special personal edition, or feel warm fuzzies about how lovely your computers must be. (That is, I'm no more likely to buy your stuff because of it, although I don't have any data on whether it does have that effect at all, and if so on how many people.) If you don't need it, don't ask for it (that goes for my whole name).

[Deleted text: But lets say you're going to ask, either because you really need to know (maybe you're a solicitor preparing court documents) or because your boss insists that the webform has to collect it. (Or, you know, the government thing again, which can fall into either category.) If you're preparing important legally binding documents, then you should have enough confidence in your data to accept the title supplied, whatever it is (including titles you're personally unfamiliar with and no title at all). If you're not confident in the accuracy of your data, why the **** are you basing legal documents on it? So for that kind of thing, you're back to a write-in box, and that's fine. It really is the right answer for some things, and that ought to be one of them.

But if you're doing this on a publically accessible webform, you probably don't want a write-in, for the reason given earlier - not unless you're going to hand-check every entry. (If you are, and you can make that work: good for you, I approve. But it's unlikely to be practical for large numbers of people.)

Perhaps, for whatever reason, you need to use a drop-menu, or something equivalent (maybe your software only allows 4 bits of data for the "title" field or, or perhaps the client says so). Here are the two entries your menu absolutely has to have:

  • None of the above

  • Prefer not to say

Ideally, you should also offer "No title", but rolling that into "None of the above" isn't entirely unreasonable. As with gender, though, "Other" and "Prefer not to say" need to be kept separate because they're totally distinct concepts. Someone whose marriage is a vital part of their identity may care very much about being addressed as "Mrs", and if you haven't given them that option, then "Prefer not to say" is just as wrong (and thus just as insulting) as a forced choice of "Mr" or "Ms".

The difficult part is what options you do offer, especially if you want to keep your list short. Even sticking just to English-native titles, there are an awful lot. Whatever you leave out, you're going to be saying you think those people are less important to you than those represented by the titles you include. Someone who has dedicated their whole life to a profession[3], or who doesn't fit the traditional gender binary, may well feel insulted and/or excluded if the title they feel truly represents them isn't available from your list. And they have a right to feel that way, because they are being excluded, even if there's no malicious intent. The obvious solution is a list containing every title you can find reference to, which isn't open to abuse in the same way as a write-in[4], and if you can do that... well, (a) that's going to be a long list, and (b) you're probably going to miss at least one anyway. And your boss might not like it, or it might be disallowed for other reasons. And then there's the whole international multi-cultural thing again - can your list ever really be complete, even if you're sticking to native english speakers? Is Rabbi on your list? What about Grand Mufti? Or Shaman? Or some term that's only just been invented as I write this but is nonetheless the exact right word for a particular group of people of whom I have never yet heard?

So this stuff is difficult, and you're going to have a "title" selection, but not a write-in or an endless list. As a reasonable minimum, then, you need a list that includes as many people as possible but is still short enough for "none of the above" to be replacing a large swathe of unusual titles rather than looking targeted. Maybe half a dozen entries, plus "None of the above" and "Prefer not to say" (both of which are likely to get treated as "none" by your mail-merge if there's a mailing list, but that's a separate issue[5]). "Mr" is easy; it probably represents over a third of the population. Cultural issues mean we need at least two entries for women to cover the equivalent space; "Mrs" has no competiton, but does our list take "Ms", or "Miss", or both? I don't know what the usage rates are, but they both seem fairly common, and I know people who are strongly attached to each one. If we take both, we've used four of our six spaces, so we can only have two more entries. I suspect that the fifth and sixth most widely-used titles among native English speakers are going to be "Mx" and "Dr", although I'd rather not stake any vital organs on being right. I'm definitely in favour of including "Mx" in the basic minimum selection; if [married woman/unmarried woman] is a distinction worth allowing, so is non-gender-binary. "Dr" covers quite a lot of people, but I think it's the one I'd be happiest to lose from the six mentioned; it's the only professional title on the list, apart from anything else.

So I think the bare minimum I'd regard as acceptable (if you must ask for a title) is:

  • Miss

  • Mr

  • Mrs

  • Ms

  • Mx

  • None of the above

  • Prefer not to say

I'd likely be happier if you added "Dr", but I do feel it's a bit the odd one out. And again, I don't think that's a perfect solution (I'm not even sure there is a perfect solution); it's a basic minimum I think people should be held to account for not meeting. Any comments?

[3] many people will be automatically thinking of academic, military, or religious titles here. Yes, all those and others too. Lots of medical professions have titles other than "doctor", and assuming that everyone competent or senior must be "Dr" is actually very insulting to - and devaluing of - the nurses, technicians and others who know more about their specialism than any surgeon, anesthesiologist, or other doctor ever will, and who are just as vital to good health care.
[4] if the system is publically accessible then there's always some abuse possible. most obviously through maliciously signing up someone else and misgendering them. But I think a write-in allows very substantially worse, given the potential for slurs, death threats, and personalised assaults.
[5] If you plan to argue in the comments that it's ok to combine them in the form if you're going to handle them the same way in code, please go back and read the bits about them being psychologically different and how the goal here is to avoid giving offence, because you seem to have missed the point.
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