Dear Mary

Dear Mary: what’s the polite way to ascertain someone’s gender?

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

Q. When my mother was widowed ten years ago she decided to take in lodgers to pay the gardener’s bills and other outgoings of the large family house she had lived in for nearly 40 years. This was a great success, not least because it provided company at what was initially a very difficult time. My mother is charming, and some of these lodgers became rather attached to her. Now her financial situation has changed and she no longer takes lodgers but many of the former incumbents like to keep in regular contact and are in the habit of turning up unannounced, often with large families in tow. I suppose it is a tribute to my mother that they arrive in full confidence that she will be fascinated by their news, will want to provide them with tea and conduct a tour of the gardens. Without upsetting anyone, how can we get the message out that, now they are no longer lodgers, they should at least ring first?
—Name and address withheld

A. If your mother (rather than you) really does want to discourage these visits, then she should retrain them by making a point of always wearing a coat when she answers the door. She can then cry ‘What a shame! I’m just dashing out. Do ring next time before you come.’ In this way she can at least cut short their visits, or at most, go out until the coast is clear.


Q. I speak German fluently and love doing so. The only difficulty is that one or two native-speaker friends take the German penchant for correcting foreigners’ mistakes to an extreme and single out every slip of the tongue or minor error. I realise that unsolicited linguistic corrections are seen as helpful rather than officious in their culture, but the feeling of being a hunted species whenever I open my mouth has started to diminish my enjoyment of the language, and requests to stop have been ignored. What should I do?
— G.T., Adelaide

A. You might refer your well-meaning German friends to a fictional article on ‘Motivation and the Learning of Foreign Languages’, which you can allege has paradoxically found that overcorrection of those speaking foreign tongues leads to a steady curtailment of their ability.

Recently at a Japanese restaurant the sushi chef was unusually friendly and we had a long conversation. Afterwards, my wife referred to the chef as ‘he’ while I thought she was female. This could lead to difficulties when we next go there. How can we tactfully find out their gender? In modern society this should be an essential piece of etiquette.
— Name and address withheld

A. It is simpler not to try to find out. After all, when interacting with a dog or cat the relationship is just as successful no matter whether you know its gender. If forced to refer to the chef in the third person, simply use ‘they’, which in 2019 will suggest that you are ‘woke’, rather than confused.

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