Handling Telephone Calls

How to address callers where voice and gender identity appear not to match

There will be occasions when an operator may either be unsure of the gender status of a caller or may inadvertently address the caller in the wrong gender. Although this ‘misgendering’ of a person may arise in any situation and can be upsetting, it is particularly so for transgender individuals; the impact can cause great embarrassment, for both parties.

Over recent years the number of transgender people (commonly called trans people) transitioning to live in the gender role that does not match their sex as registered at birth, has risen dramatically. It is now estimated that 1% of the population has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment (Equality Act, 2010), and approximately 0.2 of the population is likely to change the gender (social) role permanently – roughly 140,000 in the UK. It is therefore increasingly probable that 999 operators will encounter such folk.

The main issue is likely to be associated with trans women (those registered at birth as male now living as women). Many trans women are unable to raise the pitch of their voice and treatment with female hormones has no impact on this so, particularly on the phone, their voices will sound masculine. If a caller is, for instance, the victim of a transphobic attack, it is especially important to establish correct names, titles and pronouns as these will be relevant to any future court case. A distressed trans woman may have more difficulty in controlling her voice pitch. However, the voices of trans men (those registered as a female at birth now living as men) do respond to male hormone treatment and are more likely to have a pitch that matches their gender presentation.

Trans people are often particularly sensitive to being misgendered when using the telephone. Likewise operators have no wish to cause any embarrassment. It is usually the case that the operator will form a strong mental perception of the gender status of the caller from the first few words spoken, and this will condition a gender-specific response which, in the case of a trans woman, may be inappropriate; the assumption may be that she is a man.

So how should an operator respond if the caller’s gender is either not obvious or does not match any name/title given?

If in doubt, the best response is to ask callers how they wish to be addressed. If the caller complains that a mistake has been made: “I said my name was Susan, why did you refer to me as ‘sir’?” a polite response would be to apologise: “I am so sorry, I misheard you, should I address you as Susan or do you prefer Miss, Ms, Mrs…?” Another possible scenario, is a third party call, for example, “My Dad’s been attacked”, but then the caller continues, “her name is Mary Baker”, the operator should use female pronouns when asking any follow-up questions, “has she been injured?” .

Of course, in emergency situations, there isn’t always time for such niceties, but inappropriate pronouns do cause stress, and may make an already difficult situation worse, thus lessening the chance of receiving accurate information.

Clearly the most important issue when taking an emergency call is to obtain all necessary information in the shortest possible time, without giving offence.

Webpage Originally Published: 2014-08-25