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Mistaken identity ("Are you male or female?")


Here’s a tale of mistaken identity. My voice can be "borderline", I have discovered. As in, could be a male, could be a female.

I have a lower voice than many women. Names (for the most part) can provide clarity. Tom is male. Rachel is female. Raji? To the unfamiliar, the default is generally male.

Years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles, I had a series of calls with AAA, my automobile insurer. On one such call, after my contact, John (clearly male), had reviewed a form I had been required to fill out, he called me. "Um" he said, "the form says you are female. Are you male or female?" I started laughing at this unexpected and somewhat unpolished question. "I am female!" I responded. "Oh," he said, sounding defensive, "Well, all the Rajis I know are male." Amazing, I thought, how many does he know? Are they all in the metropolitan Los Angeles area?! I should have asked. And then, to my amusement and disbelief, he continued. This fell into the category of digging oneself in deeper. "And your voice is borderline." At this, I laughed out loud. Clearly they don't provide sensitivity training to the staff at AAA, I thought.

After I had moved up to the bay area, I answered the phone one day in the laboratory in which I was working. "With whom am I speaking?" the man on the phone wanted to know. "Raji," I replied. "Roger?" he asked.

I repeated this exchange to my colleagues after I had hung up, provoking peals of laughter. Our office manager, JoAnn, took to calling me Roger thereafter. I called her JoAnnesburg to return the favor. This is how we address each other to this day, years later.

Once, my voice did identify me as a woman on the phone, despite an earlier assumption to the contrary. I used to participate actively in an online literary discussion list on South Asian literature many years ago. We feted or tore to shreds the latest offerings from Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Arundhuti Roy, Hanif Kureishi, Pankaj Mishra and many others. When I traveled for work, I would try to connect in person with any online comrade who lived in the city I was visiting.

On one occasion, in London, I made arrangements to meet a poet from the online discussion list at the Tate Modern. She called me to confirm our meeting place and time. When we met in person, she confessed, "I was surprised to hear your voice. I was expecting a man." Evidently, my voice was not "borderline" for her.

Just recently, a business associate, a man, with whom I have had several phone conversations but have not yet met in person, referred to me as "he" in an email. The next email in the thread, from a woman, also referred to me as "he." I responded to this, clarifying that I was actually a "she", not a "he." She was profusely apologetic, saying she knew I was a "she", having visited my LinkedIn page from which it was apparent I was a woman, but was thrown off by her male colleague's reference to me as "he." Now it is clear to all of them that I am (gasp) a woman.

There is usually no question about whether I am male or female when people meet me in person. Apparently I am less androgynous in person than in voice.


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