Recently, I received a generic email from a company I used to work for, and the first thing I noticed was the salutation, which read “Dear Sirs”. I also know that this is the standard form of greeting for many corporate firms, and I find it absolutely ridiculous! I think I am even more triggered by the use of “Dear Sirs” in plural than I am by the use of “Dear Sir”, because the former suggests that you anticipate that out of all the people you are sending your mail to, not even one is a woman.
I know a woman who runs a company, and I can’t tell you the number of times people send her emails and messages referring to her as “Sir”. She always ensures that she corrects them by telling them she’s a woman. It’s amazing that we are so used to the idea of a CEO being a man that we make these assumptions without even taking a minute to check.
I used to think that this woman was just being extra, until it started happening to me. When marketers on social media reach out to me in my DMs and refer to me as “Sir”, I lose interest immediately. It’s even more annoying on social media, because this isn’t a case of you not knowing who you’re messaging. You can clearly see my pictures and profile which show that I’m a woman. But because we are so used to the masculine language, no one even bothers to check these things.
To be fair, I understand that sometimes these messages have to be sent in a generic format, but what would it cost to change the greeting to “Dear Sir/Madam” instead of “Dear Sir” or “Dear Sirs”? Maybe it’s just me, but I automatically feel excluded when I see a message that says “Sir”. I feel like you’re not referring to me – which, by the way, is NOT how you want a potential customer to feel if you’re trying to market a product to them.
For the record, I am in no way condemning people who write like this – this is more of a condemnation of society for conditioning us to think and write in this way. The truth is that as much as I try to be gender-inclusive in my language, I myself have fallen into this trap many times. And can you blame us? Using masculine language is something that has been done for many centuries. When I was in primary and secondary school, I used to write with masculine language. In fact, I remember my English teacher in secondary school telling us to use just “Dear Sir” in our letters instead of “Dear Sir/Madam”, unless we know for a fact that the person we are addressing is a woman (although thankfully, my mum told me not to listen to her). Even today, majority of the things I read and the people I listen to use masculine language. So whether you like it or not, you implicitly become conditioned to use masculine language as well.
And this use of masculine language has larger effects on the way we think and act. Here’s an illustration for you.
Close your eyes and imagine a professor.
Did you see a man or a woman? Most people say that they see a man, because from literature to the media, it is typically a man that is represented as a professor.
But I’m not just writing this blog post because I like to rant. I wouldn’t have published this if I didn’t think that subtle things such as language have more serious consequences. So my next blog post will be about how we can be more gender inclusive in our language, because I truly believe that such little steps will go a long way in helping to change our attitudes and behaviours around gender. For now, my main message is this:
Dear marketers, corporate firms, and anyone else in this category,
Please stop calling women “Sir”. Take a minute or two to find out if the person you are addressing is a woman. If you must send a general mail, a simple change to “Sir/Madam” will go a long way, and could even stop you from pissing off potential (female) clients.
For more on this topic, read this article I wrote for The Amnesty, titled We need gender-sensitive education across the global education sector.
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