The customer is always...awkward?
September 19, 2016 4:14 PM   Subscribe

Should I have pointed out my gender to a potential client who assumed I was male?

Today, as I (cis woman) was conducting what was essentially a sales call over the phone with a potential client, the (male, FWIW) client called me "sir." To the extent that it matters, the client called our main office line looking for help and was transferred to me.

Because [reasons] which include a weird-to-English-speaking-ears first name, a somewhat deep voice, a male-dominated profession, and an unambiguously female (if not "femme") physical appearance, I wasn't bothered by the misgendering even though I did notice it. I did make a mental note to correct it on our next conversation if it happened again.

Between that call, and about 20 minutes ago, the client looked me up on our website, learned that I am a woman, and then called to apologize for calling me "Sir." I did my best to non-awkwardly accept the apology and make it clear that I understood it was an innocent mistake.

This is a service industry that I'm relatively new to, and I'm trying to find the line of assertiveness between appropriate levels of deference to clients while not being a total pushover/doormat. Being a woman with a naturally strong personality complicates matters in this regard. That's why I figured that giving him one "sir" free was reasonable. With a colleague or even a current client, I probably would have spoken up in the moment. If today's communication had happened over email, I would have included a quick "Just so you know, I'm female" or (more likely) just added a "Ms." in front of my name in my signature in my reply.

But getting that second call was awkward, and I'm sure that the potential client (who seems really nice!) felt bad about having to make it. Should I have spoken up during the original call? Besides the awkwardness, I also worry that by not asserting myself as female I was letting down women who need to fight a lot harder than I do to be recognized as such.

If I were going to speak up, how should I phrase that kind of correction in a way to make us both feel comfortable?

If my "one free 'sir'" policy is the way to go, I'm also happy to hear that and chalk this up to this one person being overly conscientious for his own reasons.
posted by sparklemotion to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm trans and thus deal with this constantly. I find usually the easiest thing to do is to jump in with a quick, "Oh, I'm actually [gender]!" in a conversational tone, as though it were an error that's actually not extremely socially fraught.
posted by ITheCosmos at 4:20 PM on September 19, 2016 [31 favorites]

Unless your gender matters to the outcome of the call in some way or unless you want to control the call by forcing them into a position of feeling awkward, I wouldn't stop to correct somebody because who cares.

I'm awash with white male privilege, so it would never occur to me to worry that I was letting down my gender by not correcting a meaningless mistake, but even trying to wear my empathy hat about that kind of thing, it seems like there must be better, more important times and places to fight the power.
posted by willnot at 4:26 PM on September 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

I agree with ITheCosmos. Just a short "oh I'm a woman" does the job. If someone gets flustered and over-apologizes I say "don't worry about it... so, about that project..."
posted by AFABulous at 4:32 PM on September 19, 2016

My mom's go-to phrasing for this includes "I'm a woman with a very deep voice" said in an extremely friendly, this-is-no-big-deal tone. I'm not sure if her voice is that deep but she does get misgendered on the phone all the time and it's never become a big deal.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:33 PM on September 19, 2016 [14 favorites]

Yep, if your goal is to deal with it quickly and minimize awkwardness, the trick is to grab the reins with a no-big-deal tone, then redirect. I run into the same thing sometimes, and I tend to pitch my voice up on the phone these days just to avoid the awkward.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 5:10 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you only ever going to speak to the client the one time, or will your relationship be continuing? Because if it's the latter, you'd better correct them or it's just going to get really weird the longer you know them. If you only ever talk to them once and you don't mind misgendering...well, up to you, but if the person figures out at some point during the call that you're not a sir, again, it could get weird.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:27 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, don't sweat it, you did fine.

Also, consider this-- you wrote this was almost a sales call. It reminds me of a story I read decades ago in John T. Molloy's Dress for Success. The author, a very astute observer of more than just fashion, asked the highest-selling salesman at a large company what he did to offset his large and intimidating appearance with clients. The salesman said as soon as he entered the client's office for the first time, he dropped all of his papers, pamphlets and samples on the floor, and then apologized and bent down to pick them up. He said if the customer also stood up from his desk and helped him pick up the "clumsily dropped" items, he knew he would eventually get the sale.

I'm just saying that slight embarrassment your customer feels now might come out to your benefit when it is time to make an order. I don't know if you are on commission or not, but just think that in addition to being embarrassing, this may work out to be beneficial for your client relationship in the long run. One day you may laugh together at this as you celebrate a multi-million dollar order. Or not. Your mileage is your own, and will definitely vary.
posted by seasparrow at 5:29 PM on September 19, 2016 [14 favorites]

When I was teaching a large freshman class I got a lot of international students calling me "sir" in emails. I actually kind of started to enjoy it (even though it meant they'd probably never been to my lectures).

It's better than being asked by a telemarketer if your parents are home. "No, they live in a different state." :P
posted by heatherlogan at 5:58 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

When he called back, I would have been all "You rock! So great of you to be so polite, but it is totes not a big deal."

There are situations where I do not bother to correct people who misgender me. This is a case by case judgement call.

In situations where I am unlikely to see them again, I may not bother because it just adds awkwardness and potentially derails the conversation unnecessarily. In certain (online) settings, I often let it go for reasons that boil down to picking my battles, basically. I am fairly prominent for a woman in a certain online space. I feel it is important that I keep my eye on the prize and not undermine myself by seeming too petty, thin-skinned, fighty, etc.

And I am telling you that because you asked about taking a stance for the sake of other women. I think making those judgement calls -- about what moves the agenda forward and what just pointlessly alienates people -- is part and parcel of making real progress.
posted by Michele in California at 5:59 PM on September 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

I used to get this a lot in tech support (female, masculine first name, comparatively deep voice) and if it was someone I'd never talk to again, the "one free sir" thing is exactly how I'd look at it. If it was an ongoing thing, I wouldn't say anything the first time but correct them the second, if they still needed it.

(Disclaimer: I don't *quite* identify as genderqueer, and would rather not be referred to with male pronouns if given the option, but it's not as big a leap as it is for some people, and my gender presentation is deliberately fairly neutral. So... ymmv.)
posted by restless_nomad at 6:28 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Sir" for women is becoming increasingly acceptable in the military and police forces, and Chinese speakers frequently confuse genders because their native language doesn't make a distinction. You never know where they're coming from....
posted by miyabo at 7:19 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Maybe you could have said something like this...

Customer: Hello Sir
You: Hello, and please feel free to call me Sarah (ie, no need to be so formal)

Providing you have a female name. Just get it out there as quickly as possible. It's not very comfortable to say "actually I am a woman."
posted by Youremyworld at 7:21 PM on September 19, 2016

I once had a (cis male) boss with a gender ambiguous name who did a lot of first-line communicating over email. He would just correct people as needed, in a neutral way. Something like "Sorry for any confusion, but I'm actually male, thanks."
posted by Sara C. at 9:56 PM on September 19, 2016

Ellie spelt Elie is a typically male name in France where I live, so I often get misgendered by email (not once I have spoken on the phone as I have a higher pitched voice), I do a polite redirection to Madame rather than Monsieur which avoids making the person feel awkward.
posted by ellieBOA at 10:50 PM on September 19, 2016

I'm a cis female with a gender neutral name but have a job that makes people assume that I'm male, and I deal with clients / colleagues via email - sometimes for months - before they ever meet me in person or hear me on a teleconference. For me, it's about avoiding other people's embarrassment. If I pick up an incorrect gender pronoun via email, I just email that person to clarify before they embarrass themselves further. That tends to do the trick. No-one wants to get it wrong. A quick "this is the correct pronoun" / "this is the correct title" will fix it. The longer you leave it, the more awkward it gets. Nip it in the bud.
posted by finding.perdita at 12:14 AM on September 20, 2016

Another female with a deep voice here. I usually start out conversations with someone I don't know, or if I can't/forgot and the person is coming to see me, I end conversations with "I'm the lady with the _____." My name is gender neutral but leans more on the female side.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:57 AM on September 20, 2016

I get that this is No Big Deal to some, but in a perfect non gender-binary world no person would assume another person's gender, period. So if you're interested in trying to bring that perfect world a bit closer to reality, you should state your pronoun (or, correct it, in this case).

There is a movement among ally groups to state pronouns in things like online bios, on conference nametags and when introducing themselves to speak. Having even people who seem obviously their gender as assigned at birth state their gender normalizes the process so people who are not gender-binary are more free to do so as well.

I think correcting it briefly and moving on is the best plan. The longer you wait the more awkward it gets, you know? Plus, if it's truly "not a big deal" then you can take some of the emotional effort of doing the work to make this world better from those for whom it is a big deal.

(You can refer to me as she/her, btw :))
posted by Brittanie at 5:46 AM on September 20, 2016

I (cis female *who sounds female*) have a name that is both a male and a female name. I work in a male dominated field. I am constantly being referred to as a male, even after talking to someone on the phone. I just roll with it and laugh it off.

I'd like to ditto Michelle in California (who I find myself agreeing with a LOT!) that if someone followed up to apologize I would tell them how awesome they are for doing so and laugh about how it happens all the time and make a "I'm not a doctor but I play on on TV" type joke.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 8:08 AM on September 20, 2016

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