Tag: email signatures

On globalizing your contact information but still managing to confuse somebody

by on Dec.10, 2011 , under facilitative leadership, localization, random

My friend Ruth M Sylte has been doing a great series on how to internationalize your email signature and other contact information basics, and it reminded me of a funny communication breakdown that I once caused.

A tip for those with Asian audiences

First, a quick backgrounder:

Asian family names come first and given names follow. However, many Asians adapt their names for a Western audience, and Western readers who don’t recognize any of the pieces (e.g. don’t know that Park is a common family name) can’t be sure whether the name they’re seeing is in traditional order or has been adapted. And Westerners can confuse their Asian colleagues when they attempt to be helpful by putting their family name first.

Here’s the solution many global-savvy Asians and their observant Western colleagues have adopted: put the family name in upper-case, e.g.

  • PARK WonJin
  • Erin VANG
  • UCHIDA Noriko
  • Ruth Marie SYLTE

A comment about (Mr), (Ms), etc.

Ruth advises including a title in front of your name, modestly enclosed in parentheses, e.g. “(Ms) Ruth M Sylte.” This a common tactic for disambiguating gender.

For years I included (Ms) before my name for exactly the reasons Ruth anticipates: because I was tired of getting email to “Mr Erin” and “Mr Vang” from people who really had no way to know better.

However, this led to some amusing conversations with Americans who had known me so long that it didn’t occur to them that my given name “Erin” is not particularly common and is sometimes mistaken as a male name (and who also didn’t perhaps realize that women in high tech management positions are still enough of a minority to promote doubt among those who do know the name).

For example, this one:

Story time

Grant (gentleman who had been working with me for years, near the end of a meeting in my office): I noticed you put “Ms” in your email signature.

me: Yes.

Grant: What does that mean?

me: You know–Ms as opposed to Mr.

Grant: Oh. (Uncomfortably long pause.) You’re not saying Ms as opposed to Miss or Mrs.?

me: No, I’m just clarifying gender because I’m tired of being addressed as “Mr” by people who haven’t met me. (And people standing right in front of me, for that matter–yes, a woman can have short hair and be taller than you–but I didn’t bring that up.)

Grant: So you’re not clarifying marital status.

me: No.

Grant: Oh. (uncomfortable chuckle)

Grant says a few pleasantries and exits the office. My office-mate watches him leave, waits a safe moment, and then bursts into gales of laughter.

I raise an eyebrow, and John explains. He has realized what I have not: that while I thought I was explaining that my name is gender-ambiguous to colleagues around the world, Grant was trying to determine whether he could ask me out.

As it happens, I was single at the time as well as female. But there was another question that this perfectly lovely gentlemen neglected to consider, that it never occurred to me he might have even wondered about, and right there, we did it. Two American native speakers of English sitting a few feet away from each other in Chicago, Illinois, USA and observing each other’s body language and everything, still managed to have a total communication breakdown.

I don’t think there’s an email signature solution to that problem, though.

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