• Relationships

Rewriting The Rules Of Etiquette: What’s In a Name?

A couple weeks ago I addressed the issue of a woman changing her name when she marries. I expressed that although I don’t plan to change my name when I get hitched this summer, I respect and appreciate every woman’s right to choose what’s best for her. I reject the notion some have expressed that when a woman takes her husband’s last name she’s giving up her identity.

But then I had an interesting conversation with my mother recently that added a whole new layer to this name and identity dichotomy. I’ve been working on wedding invitations and I’m in the middle of finalizing a guest list and collecting addresses, so I shot my mom an email to make sure I had the most current addresses of our family members, and I also asked how I should formally address certain people on the envelopes. I figured that my mother and grandmother, being total old-school traditionalists, would prefer to be addressed with their husbands as Mr. and Mrs. TheirHusband’sFirstAndLastName, but I wasn’t sure about everyone else. How, for example, should I address my aunt who’s divorced but retained her married name?

My mother’s reply sort of shocked me.As I expected, she expressed her desire to be addressed as Mrs. MyDad’sFullName, but said that etiquette dictated that all married women who share their husband’s last name be addressed as such, and that divorced women who retain their married names, like my aunt, should be addressed as Mrs. — not Ms., as I assumed — TheirFullName. Most surprising to me, my mother said that even when a card is sent just to her, like a birthday card or Mother’s Day card, she prefers to be addressed as Mrs. My Dad’s Full Name and not, as I’d assume, Mrs. Her Full Name! “Your grandmother prefers that as well,” she said, “We’ve talked about it.” She says that addressing a woman as Mrs. Her First and Last Name would imply that she’s divorced, and a card addressed without a title at all is just plain “impolite.” “Google the etiquette rules if you don’t believe me,” she said.

Well, I did Google the rules; I even took the bible of social rules, “Emily Post’s Etiquette (16th Edition)” down off the shelf, and was astonished to find that my mom is pretty much correct. The book and almost every link I found said it was proper etiquette to address the envelope of a married couple as Mr. and Mrs. John S. Smith without any regard to the woman’s first name at all. In my brief search I found just one exception, which expressed clearly: “Either use both first names when addressing a married couple or no first names at all. Avoid the Mr. and Mrs. John Doe. (it is old fashioned and usually makes the wife feel owned by her husband).” Using no first names on mail addressed to married couples is the tradition I’ve adopted as an adult, never realizing that both my mother and grandmother find it disrespectful because it’s not in keeping with traditional rules of etiquette.

My mother says the etiquette rule that trumps all others when it comes to names is to call a person what he or she wishes to be called, which is a rule that’s surely timeless. But what about in situations when one doesn’t know how a person wishes to be addressed and it’s impractical to ask (like when you have to address 100 invitations, for example)? If we’re to fall back on the general rules of etiquette, isn’t it time that those rules reflect modern culture and not the traditions of the 1950s or earlier?

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