I don’t know about you, but I sense an uncomfortable tension between traditional etiquette and contemporary reality. Nowhere is it more palpable to me than on a Christmas card envelope.
Every year I find different ways of reconciling my respect for proper etiquette with the realities of modern relationships. Last night, the tension kept me awake, as I revisited hundreds of envelopes in my head.
One of the virtues of etiquette is that it gives us clear rules and bright lines between what is proper and what isn’t. I do try to adhere to these, as it saves me from making erroneous judgment calls.
However, the rules were written at a time when households were composed of traditional relationships, typically, a mister and a missus and some children.
One rule I follow strictly is placing a prefix before a name. I’d never address a letter to “John and Mary Smith.” Never. Etiquette calls for “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith” and I follow that.
I’d also never address a birthday card to “Mary Smith.” But here’s where it gets a little dicey. In the old days, the proper way to address a letter to Mary would have been “Mrs. John Smith.” Nowadays, I’d be inclined to write “Ms. Mary Smith,” especially if Mary were on the younger side. But never “Mrs. Mary Smith,” though that has become accepted.
Our Christmas card list is made up of all sorts of exceptions to the rule. This is worth celebrating, because it shows the rich diversity of our friends, their professional accomplishments and living situations.
But therein lies the tension. What if the husband is a mister but his wife is a doctor? Or the wife uses her maiden name? Does one address a couple as “Mr. and Dr.?” No, because etiquette requires use of the husband’s name, so it doesn’t match up: “Mr. and Dr. John Smith” is incorrect because John isn’t the doctor; Mary is. If the two went by the same last name, then it would be “Mr. John Smith and Dr. Mary Smith.” If Mary uses her maiden name, then it would be “Mr. John Smith and Dr. Mary Jones.” One line or two?
What about a same-sex couple? One wouldn’t say “Mr. and Mr. Baxter” if they don’t share a last name. Even so, whose first name would be used? What I do is put one person’s name on the first line, usually the one I know better: Mr. William Brown and Mr. Robert Green. Or both names on the first line if they fit.
What if one member of the couple has a military title but the two have different last names? Or what if they share a last name but the woman is the military officer? Mr. and Captain? Who, the man or the woman? What if one is a judge?
When addressing a family, I typically address the envelope to “The Nelson Family” (even when the family is one parent and one child) and inside say “Dear Richard, Martha, Bobby, Billy and Betty, comma. Notice I said “Dear.” That’s how letters and cards are addressed. Not “Richard, Martha, Bobby, Billy and Betty.” Let’s not let “Dear” fade away. Please.
In addressing my cards, I encountered instances in which I did not know all the children’s names. Lacking clear guidance, I simply said, “Dear Richard, Martha and family.” Tacky, I know, but that’s all I knew to do.
As an empty-nester, I pondered whether or not to sign my son’s name to our card. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did. What if the addressees’ children have left the nest? Are their names included any longer?
These issues weighed heavily on my mind at three o’clock this morning. The cards are going in the mail today, so there’s not much I can do this year. Next year maybe I’ll keep the rules handy with the master list.
I don’t hear anyone else worrying about these issues. Am I alone in my tension? I suspect the people who wear white shoes and pants between Labor day and Memorial Day will say that times have changed and we should just do whatever is easier. And truly, dropping prefixes and titles is easier. But I can’t do it. I am conditioned for convention, predisposed toward politesse. And sleepy.