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Help desks switch to inclusive salutation: ‘Times change, and we change with them’

Dear Sir or Madam? Many colleagues think that sounds out of date. That is why the hundreds of thousands of automated messages sent by university help desks every year will now include a gender-neutral salutation. This change is an extensive but important ICT job, says product owner Julian van der Kraats.

Julian van der Kraats

The university’s help desks are constantly working on their hospitality, Julian says. ‘Part of that is being very conscious about forms of address. For some time, we have noticed that some staff and students perceive a salutation like “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” to be uncomfortable, old-fashioned or just rude.’ As a former team leader at the university’s ISSC help desk, Julian is familiar with these responses to automated messages. In addition, some staff and students feel uncomfortable with the gender distinction or do not identify with their biological sex. Then it can be stressful and confrontational to be addressed as “Sir” or “Madam” in emails or letters.

Not so black and white

Leiden University aims to be a safe and inclusive environment for all staff and students. Being an open, engaged community where everyone feels at home is also one of the ambitions in the university’s 2022-2027 strategic plan. ‘That includes making sure the way we communicate reflects contemporary etiquette’, says Julian. ‘We also have non-binary colleagues working at the help desks, and they know from experience how frustrating it is if this is not respected. And this is not just happening at university: my 16-year-old daughter is also noticing that times are changing at her school. I think it’s good that we as a university are changing with the times.’

Julian has a background in philosophy. ‘That’s how I know that gender is basically a story within a culture. And it’s striking how much effort goes into emphasising the binary difference between men and women in our culture. The fact that something like that takes effort actually indicates that reality is not so black and white.’

‘Dear first name surname’

The new gender-inclusive salutation was chosen in democratic fashion. Julian is now working as the product owner of TOPdesk, the ticketing system through which employees submit requests and queries to the ISSC, FSSC and PSSC help desks. At the request of the Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office last year, his team put out a survey among TOPdesk users asking how they would like to be addressed. This received a positive response. Many colleagues who do identify as male or female also thought the survey was a good initiative.

By far the most frequently chosen salutation was the combination ‘Dear first name surname’. But there were interesting differences per target group, Julian says. ‘Young colleagues mainly prefer the modern way of addressing people without using a binary gender. Male colleagues and those over 50 often consider it important to include a gender in a salutation. Unfortunately, customisation is impossible with the current systems. At the same time, we want as many preferences as possible to be heard.’

That is why, from now on, staff will receive automated messages with the salutation ‘dear first name surname’. Making the change was quite a project for Julian’s team. ‘For the hundreds of thousands of emails sent every year, you are already dealing with 150 different templates in TOPdesk alone, all of which are also bilingual. Each of these had to be adjusted manually.’

Tip: Watch First Dates

Julian is happy that most people find these changes normal. ‘And to the colleagues who think it’s weird that we’re moving away from that strict binary, I would say: try watching First Dates. It’s a very upbeat television programme where you see all kinds of people looking for love. That too shows how times are changing.’

‘A salutation sets the tone for how you treat each other’
Aya Ezawa, Diversity Officer

Why is a gender-inclusive salutation important?
‘An appropriate salutation is important for everyone. It’s a way of being respectful and it sets the tone for how you treat each other. Gender inclusion means we respect the diversity of gender identities. These include female, male, non-binary and gender fluid identities. A gender-inclusive salutation contributes to creating an inclusive and respectful learning and working environment. That is why the Executive Board has decided that automated and official communication will now be gender inclusive. The decision does not cover individual communications.’

Do you have tips for colleagues who want to communicate more inclusively?
‘The preference of the person being addressed is decisive in this respect. So if you don’t know someone yet, it is more convenient to choose a gender-inclusive salutation initially, such as “Dear First Name” or “Dear First Name Surname”. More and more colleagues also include their pronouns in their signatures. And if you want to ask about someone’s preference, focus on asking about salutation rather than their sex or gender identity. So instead of asking “Are you a man, woman or non-binary?”, it’s better to ask, “Which salutation do you prefer?”.’

Where can colleagues find more information?
‘The university’s writing guidelines provide an overview of gender-inclusive options (e.g. for messages directed at groups and for formal and automated communication, such as for contracts, binding study advice or graduation ceremonies). The tips for gender-inclusive communication offer further guidance on how to ask (or not) about gender. If you’re still struggling or have questions, please contact the Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office! We are also happy to drop by and give a workshop or presentation if there is a need.’

Text: Evelien Flink

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