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Recently I got this confusion when I received an email in German as I was unable to make out the gender of the sender to reply as Sehr geehrte(r) Frau/Herr.

If the names are David, Tom, Christian, Sebastian, Mohammad then its obvious to use

Sehr geehrter Herr David/Tom/Christian/Sebastian/Mohammad,

so is for Marie, Mary, Sofia referred as

Sehr geehrte Frau Mary/Marie/Sofia

but for an ambiguous name which is hard to identify the gender due to varying cultures then what should I use in the salutation?

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Only a marginal remark: It's unusual to combine "Sehr geehrte/r Dame/Herr" with the first name - usually, you would use only the surname as part of the salutation. But i know, this wasn't the question... –  tohuwawohu Aug 27 '12 at 14:33
    
Note: In formal writing you'd write Sehr geehrte(r) Herr/Frau [Surname], but if you can go with an informal greeting (such as you do with colleagues) you can avoid your problem by just writing Hallo David/Mary. Especially if you just know the first name of your contact (because he/she ended with something along Best regards [first name]) then it's absolutely OK to leave out Sehr geehrte(r) –  Em1 Aug 27 '12 at 14:39
    
I missed on the surname part, I want to refer using the second name i.e. Sie being the formal form, so I prefer to use Sehr geehrter Herr Nurstein, if the name is David Nurstein or Sehr geehrter Frau Nurstein, for Mary Nurstein. referring the first name I can use the formal salutation but the confusion arises when the first name is't obvious to reply in the formal salutation using the second name. –  user1264624 Aug 27 '12 at 18:31
    
How about "Guten Tag!"? –  Landei Aug 28 '12 at 13:50
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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Business rules of conduct recommend that you call the reception of the company and ask what Gender your addressee has. If that is not possible and you want to avoid asking the person him- or herself, you can write "Guten Tag, Firstname Lastname, ...", if the context is less formal. If you have to be very formal, choose: "Sehr geehrte Frau" or "Sehr geehrter Herr" and guess the sex. Never use plural for one person! Using "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren" if you know the name is more rude than picking the wrong sex. If you expect the person to have some minimal sense of humor, simply explain your confusion right at the beginning of your letter.

Do NOT use alternatives in brackets or with slashes in a business letter!

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That's exactly what it should be. A pithy answer. –  Em1 Aug 30 '12 at 12:35
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The correct formal salutation would be

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,

which is the equivalent of Dear Sir/Madam,

Let me add, in your example with first names where gender is known, you would use:

Sehr geehrte Marie, Mary, Sofia,

and

Sehr geehrter David, Tom, Christian, Sebastian, Mohammed,

When combining genders, ladies first, so do this either on one line:

Sehr geehrte Marie, Sofia, sehr geehrter David, Tom,

Or in two lines, ladies on the first line, gents on the second:

Sehr geehrte Marie, Mary, Sofia,

Sehr geehrter David, Tom, Christian, Sebastian, Mohammed,

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So, actually I'm struggling with how to answer this question so that it satisfies you as well as every other person who might have a similar problem as you encounter now. I could think of several ways how to encounter this situation, so if my answer doesn't hit your context please provide your context in comment and I'll extend my answer.

However, first of all, you have to pay attention on addressing your contact in a proper way, i.e. if you're per Du or per Sie. That means, if it is OK to address your contact with his first name you don't need Sehr geehrte(r) and you can just stick with Hallo. But you will usually not combine Sehr geehrte(r) with the first name. So you'd go with either of the following salutations:

Sehr geehrte Frau Mustermann

Sehr geehrter Herr Mustermann

Hi (or Hallo) Erika

Said that, I'd like to elaborate on the problem don't knowing the person's gender.

The German language itself doesn't offer a lot of possibilities. And those I can think of do sound quite awkward in your context. Namely I'm talking about Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren. This is a salutation commonly used in job applications when you don't know who'll read your application. But since you already have a contact in your given context, it would be sound very strange for your contact addressing him/her with this salutation.

Besides that, there's another reason why I really recommend to figure out what the person's gender is. Imagine you would always avoid addressing the person in a proper way just because you don't know their gender. On the one hand the person might feel uncomfortable if he/she recognizes your uncommon addressing and/or it could be very embarrassing to you if he/she finds out after months of conversation.

There are a lot of ways to find out one's name. One of them, already provided by another answer, is to use the Internet, though I see this as the last instance to go through.

Alternatives are based on your relationship to your contact. Let's say he/she is a customer, then you can (1) ask your fellows if one of them had already contact with him/her or (2) call the company and ask them [*], or (3) if you have a direct phone number call the person themselves and you'll likely hear their gender from his/her voice. Then of course you should be prepared with an excuse why to phone them, e.g.,

Guten Tag Herr Mustermann (or Frau Musterdame), bezüglich ihrer E-Mail-Anfrage möchte ich Ihnen kurz eine Frage stellen, um gezielter auf ihr Anliegen einzugehen...

(In English: regarding your e-mail I've a follow-up question to narrow down your request.)

If you really see no way of how to ascertain the name of your contact then stand by your problem and say it appropriately in your response. Appropriately here means to keep the formality and sensitiveness for such an inconvenient question. How to? That's up to you, here a suggestion

Vielen Dank für ihr Schreiben vom 27 August. Zuerst möchte ich mich dafür entschuldigen, dass es mir nicht möglich war, ausfindig zu machen, wie ich sie angemessen anspreche.

(In English: Thanks for your letter. First I'd like to mention that I'm very sorry for not being able figuring out the appropriate way how to address you.)

If you're feeling uncomfortable with such a way then, and only then, use the Internet to find out the most likely gender. If then you're barking up the wrong tree your contact will correct you in their response.


[*] That's also suggested in case of job application to ask first who'll be the contact for hiring.

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Great question, I'm confronted with the same problem now and then.

There are websites with databases, and usually what you are looking for is there, even if the name is exotic. Check http://www.gpeters.com/names/baby-names.php or http://www.behindthename.com/ (or go to https://www.google.de/search?q=gender+names).

Another option is to do a Google image search - the results will make things obvious, especially if combined with the country of the recipient.

And in the rare event of not being able to find out the gender (because it's 50/50), the recipient will probably be used to this kind of confusion.

And if the name is very, very exotic, "Guten Tag" or "Hallo" will do. EDIT: Make sure you know the context when using one of the two. "Hallo" is rather informal.

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Well, the idea with checking online isn't bad but the first name I typed on the page (first link) said it's a girl's name, but unfortunately the only person I know called Kim is a man. Damn :( (But the second link is a bit better ;)) –  Em1 Aug 27 '12 at 14:46
    
Also, just saying Hallo might be possible provided informality is fine. If I get an email from a customer I'd be careful just saying Hallo... –  Em1 Aug 27 '12 at 14:52
    
@Em1: That's true about "Hallo", I should have elaborated. Will do. But does that justify a downvote??? About "Kim": if you read carefully, the first link says " it is 1.541 times more common for Kim to be a girl's name", which is low. The second link gives genders and countries, which is quite good and exact. And Googling shows you the Kim you are probably talking about (although I think Kim is also quite a common girl's name). –  Olaf Aug 27 '12 at 15:15
    
The downvote because the approach is more a workaround than a solution. Your answer is imho just a comment worth. Between the lines of OP's question you can read: What does the German language offer to work with that problem. You also don't answer this part. If you think German does not support it then you could start with: There's no way, but there're several workarounds. However, using google is here still a workaround in distress. What about asking the person itself, contacting the company he/she is working for, etc. What do you think? –  Em1 Aug 27 '12 at 15:41
    
Well, I think it's the other way round. I fact I think trying to avoid any gender specific salutation is even more a workaround than finding out - correctly in most cases, I can assure you - the gender of the recipient. I need to write to Indians a lot, and the system almost never fails. IMHO that addresses the problem user1264624 is describing in an absolutely valid way. I didn't understand the question as referring to the theoretical level the way you did. –  Olaf Aug 27 '12 at 16:24
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Google the name to get a clue, if you are writing to a male or to a female: There are websites that explain the meanings of names.

If there is really no way finding it out, write

Sehr geehrte/r (Full Name)

and mention in your reply that you are not sure about sender's gender.

or, more casual, write:

Hallo (First Name)

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