Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Proper Use of Mrs. and Miss

When I was a little girl, most women were called either Mrs. or Miss by all except for family and close friends.

Unless you were obviously someone's peer or someone's elder in age, you did not use someone's first name unless he or she invited you to do so. If someone wished you to call them by first name, they would say, "Please, call me ______ (the woman's first name)".

In certain situations, a woman might be called Miss or Mrs. even by her peers, unless she specifically invited someone to do otherwise. This was especially true if a woman visited a doctor's office or other place of business. Even if she worked for a company, she was likely to be called Mrs. or Miss by others, particularly if she were older or held a superior position in the organization.

Certainly, few children ever referred to adults by their first names. Even once a child reached adulthood, he continued to call his or her parents' peers by Mr. Mrs. or Miss. The exception might be for someone especially close to the family, who might then be called by a special name -- such as Aunt Louise.

By the time I married at age twenty-five (in 1980), Ms. had generally replaced Mrs. and Miss. At the same time, culture and business were becoming increasingly casual. The use of first names in all types of settings became more common. Some bosses invited their employees to call them by first names. Telemarketers even began referring to the people they phoned by their first names in an effort to draw them into conversation.

Most of my personal friends took their husband's last names when they married, as did I. A very few of my friends and acquaintances kept on using their maiden name as their surname, even after marriage. None of my daughter's friends kept their maiden name as a last name upon marriage -- or at least none that I can think of. All seemed to have taken their husband's name.
Of course, we live in the South, where we are a little slower to part with some traditions. Just when we finally get around to changing something, the rest of the country has changed it back again!

Now, I'm just describing my observations of a cultural change in how names are used. It's not my intention in this article to comment one way or the other about whether this trend has been a good one or not.

I leave it entirely up to you to decide how you want to be addressed by others. I also leave it up to you to choose your own signature.

However, I have noticed that there are a number of younger women would like to return to using the title, Mrs. ___ ____(Mrs. and their husband's first name and surname.) Since this represents a revival of a custom that has all but disappeared, I thought some readers might enjoy hearing what Mrs. Post had to say about the correct usage of Mrs. and Miss in her 1950 edition of Etiquette. Whether or not you agree with the old rules or not, it's not bad to know what they are. That way, even if you choose to do something different, it will be a conscious choice and not merely an error.

This first section has to do with how you write another woman's name or how you sign your own name in both personal and business correspondence.

"A married woman should always sign a letter to a stranger, a bank, business firm, etc., with her (birth) name and add, in parentheses, her married name. Thus:

Very truly yours,
Mary Jones Smith
(Mrs. John Smith)

If for all general purposes her writing paper is marked with her full name and address, her signature, Mary Jones Smith, needs no explanation.

Never Sign a Letter "Mrs."... A Lady writing to another lady, or to a gentleman, should sign her name this way to every friend and acquaintance who perfectly well knows her married name:

Mary Jones

To acquaintances who may not know which Mrs. or possibly Miss Jones she is, she signs her name

Mary Jones
(Mrs. John Jones)

An unmarried lady signs her name

(Miss) Mary Jones

Those who fear to sign their names "Mary" because they think someone might then feel privileged to call them "Mary" can write clearly beneath their signature, " "Kindly reply to Mrs. John Smith." And, they can moreover sign their name "M.J. Smith" instead of "Mary Jones Smith."

Never under any circumstances sign a letter with Mr., Mrs., or Miss as an unseparated part of one's signature unless one is willing to be considered both ignorant and rude."

(Please note that Mrs. Post was writing during an era where the rules about using Mrs. and Miss were more generally known than they are now. I will not think you are either ignorant or rude if you fail to sign your correspondence according to Mrs. Post's directions!)

So, on which occasions did Mrs. Post think a woman should sign her name as Mrs. ___ ____? According to Mrs. Post, she should do so when signing something like a hotel register or when sending a business telegram. Obviously, few of us send telegrams anymore, but I gather that the modern usage might be that you would write your name as Mrs. ___ ____ when signing anything that might be of public record.

Here is one quote from Mrs. Post that I do feel strongly about. This concerns how to address a a letter to a widow:

Correctly a widow keeps her husband's name. According to best taste no note or social letter should ever be addressed to a married woman, even if she is a widow, as Mrs. Mary Town. Correctly, a widow keeps her husband's name always. If her son's wife should have the same name, she becomes Mrs. James Town, senior, or simply Mrs. Town, if there is no other with the same name. Of course if, in a certain community, it is customary for widows to prefix Mrs. to their birth names and they themselves have no objection, their names are certainly their own to use as they choose. But to those of you who want to keep your husband's name, best taste and truth agree that the man gave his name when he gave the wedding ring -- both were for life, or until the woman marries again.

The reason I feel strongly about that is that there are many widows living today who married during the time when people still adhered to certain ideas about how to Mrs. and Miss in both correspondence and conversation. Addressing a widow who learned etiquette in the nineteen forties, -fifties, or even -sixties as Mrs. Mary Town, instead of Mrs. James Town, implies to her that you think she was divorced, rather than widowed. It also sends a message to her that you have forgotten or care little about the years she was married.

An older woman, who cherishes memories of her husband and of her marriage, could be greatly hurt by this. Perhaps, she will allow for the fact that today's etiquette is less precise than it once was. However, it's always better to show respect for an older woman and for her late husband than it is to be too casual in this particular matter.

So, if you do send a card or an invitation to a widow, please address the envelope thusly, Mrs. James Town. (the widow's late husband's first and last names.) Inside the card, use whatever name you normally call her. For example, if you truly are on a first name basis, it is OK to say Dear Mary. Or, if she happens to be her grandmother, of course, you would write Dear Grandma or Dear Mimi or whatever name you generally use. If you are not a relative or her peer or elder in age, and she has not asked you to call her by her first name, it is best to say Dear Mrs. Town.

In Mrs. Post's Day, the old rule was that a divorced woman used her maiden name and her husband's name. For example, if she was Mary Smith before she married and divorced Mr. Smith, she would sign her name Mrs. Mary Simpson Smith. In today's world, fewer people would recognize that rule. At any rate, I'm not interested in calling attention to the fact that a particular woman is divorced, but I do think it's important to honor widows according to the manners they were taught.

In Mrs. Post's day, the custom of calling the eldest daughter of the family Miss Smith and her younger sister Jane Smith was still around. Jane Austen fans will recognize that this point of etiquette goes back for centuries. However, in Mrs. Post's day, the custom was beginning to change. Originally, this tradition was developed to show respect for the elder daughter's position in society. However, it came to be associated with unflattering stereotypes of "spinsters". Therefore, in Mrs. Post's Day, it became more common to address envelopes to unmarried girls or women in this way, "Miss Alice and Miss Jane Smith".

Now, even though it was not considered proper to sign your own name as Mrs. ___ ____ in the signature of a letter, it was considered proper to address an envelope to another woman by using her married title, Mrs. _______ _______.

In the salutation of a letter, you might write Mrs. ________. At least this was true unless the two women were both peers in age and friends, in which case they would naturally write salutations to each other using their first names.

If Mary Jones (Mrs. Oscar Jones) wanted to write to Mrs. Marks, and she was not on a first name basis with her, she would word her letter this way:

Dear Mrs. Marks:

Julian Gibbs is going to Buffalo on January tenth to deliver a lecture on his Polar expedition, and I am giving him this note of introduction to you. He is a very great friend of ours, and I think that perhaps you and Mr. Marks will enjoy meeting him as much as I know he would enjoy knowing you.

With kindest regards, in which Oscar joins,

Very Sincerely,
Mary Jones

Note that in the example above, it's obvious that Mrs. Marks knows enough about Mary Jones to know that Oscar is her husband. The Marks and the Jones are well enough acquainted that Mrs. Jones feels comfortable referring to her husband by his first name. She also does not feel the need to add Mrs. Oscar Jones in parentheses below her signature, since Mrs. Marks already knows she is Mrs. Oscar Jones. But, for some reason, Mary Jones does not assume that she can address Mrs. Marks by her first name.

Perhaps, Mary Jones simply does not know Mrs. Marks well enough to assume a first-name relationship. The two women obviously live in different towns. Perhaps, Mrs. Jones visits relatives in Buffalo from time to time, and, thus, she has become acquainted with their dear friend, Mrs. Marks. Yet, they are not direct friends.

Or, more likely, Mrs. Marks is older than Mary Jones. Mrs. Marks might even be someone who is of the same generation as Mary Jones' mother.

In another scenario, let's assume Mrs. Oscar Jones is writing a business letter to Mrs. Marks. In this case, the two women have never met. Mrs. Jones might word the letter this way.

Dear Mrs. Marks:

Your bed and breakfast was recommended to me by Mrs. Arthur Norman.

I would like know what accommodation you can offer me for the weekend of August 21st. I need one double room with a bath for my husband and myself, as well as a double room for my daughters and a single room for my son.

Please send me a brochure containing your floor plan and prices, and I will let you know my decision by return mail.


M. J. Jones
(Mrs. Oscar B. Jones)

Mary Jones could use Mary instead of sighing the letter M. J., particularly if she anticipates forming a friendship with Mrs. Marks.

Also, Mary Jones would need to add the Mrs. Oscar B. Jones only if she is using stationary on which her married name is not already engraved or printed. If you would like to use your married name in correspondence, you might consider having some personal and/or business stationary made. Please note that business letters are generally typed (nowadays on the computer), while social letters are handwritten. As much as those with horrible handwriting, like me, would like to type personal letters, they look impersonal to the person who receives them. Of course, emails must, by definition, be typed.

If, as explained above, Mrs. Jones would prefer that Mrs. Marks not address her as Mary, she could write underneath M. J. Jones or Mary Jones, "Please reply to Mrs. Oscar B. Jones".

Or, Mrs. Jones might write a letter this way:

Dear Mrs. Marks:

Thank you for your interest in my home sewing business. Yes, I do have a collection of mother/daughter apron patterns, and I will be happy to make an apron for both you and your daughter according to the pattern and sizes you select. I have enclosed a brochure and price list for your information.


Mary Jones
(Mrs. Oscar B. Jones).

As far as conversation goes, here is a little of what Mrs. Post has to say:

"Every child should at least be taught never to call a grown person by his or her first name -- unless told to do so by that person. In many cases, really intimate friends who are devoted to the children -- those who do not like the formality of Mr. and Mrs. and yet do not want to be called by their first name -- suggest nicknames for themselves. Otherwise, everyone is of course called Mr. and Mrs."

Mrs. Post argues that it is not fair to a child to fail to teach him to address adults properly, as those who overhear the child might criticize his lack of manners. By that same logic, encouraging a child to call you by your first name might also place the child in an unfair situation.

"In speaking about other people, one says "Mrs.", "Miss," or "Mr." as the case may be."
that Mrs. Post is speaking in this instance when the listener is not on a first name basis with the person in question.

Here are two examples:

You speak of a woman -- Mary Jones (Mrs. Oscar B. Jones) in conversation with Susan Brown (Mrs. Daniel Brown). Susan either does not know Mary Jones personally and/or is much younger than Mrs. Jones. So, you say, "Mrs. Jones is heading up the PTO project this year. She's asking for volunteers. Would you be interested in helping?"

On the other hand, if you and Susan both know Mary Jones well, you would say, "Did you know that Mary (or Mary Jones, if you both know more than one Mary) is heading up the PTO project this year. She's asking for volunteers. Would you like to help?"

"On the telephone, a lady says to another whom she knows socially, but who is not a "first-name-calling" friend, "Hello, Mrs. Smith? This is Mary Jones." Mrs. Smith answers, "Good morning, Mrs. Jones!"

Now, have I made all this as clear as mud! LOL! If you have any questions, leave them in the comments. I'll try my best to answer them.



Mrs. Brigham said...

Thank you very much for this article! I was raised to never, ever address an adult by their first name unless they told me otherwise and was honestly shocked through much on my childhood days when friend would take the liberty of calling my parents by their first names! I still always will say Miss/Mr/Mrs Soandso until I know otherwise and am a little uncomfortable when strangers will refer to me as my first name as if they know me.

I really liked the important point you mentioned about widows and how they should be addressed. It seems that many in my generation have forgotten these very important points of etiquette and might not even realize how they may be offending an older lady. I have heard many people my age speak of how "offended" they are of addressing an older lady as Mrs. John Smith, rather than Ms. Mary Smith. It is very sad.

Mrs.B. said...

I loved this post!

You probably covered this and I missed it but when addressing a letter to a close friend I have a couple of questions...

#1 On the envelope how should my name be written? (as the sender)

#2 Do I just simply sign it 'Love, (and my first name)' or do I write both my first and last name?

Thank you for taking the time to post this.---I'll definitely be rereading it. (o:


Elizabeth said...

Hi Mrs. Brigham,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I'm so glad that your parents gave you such a good head start by teaching you how to treat others politely.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Mrs. B.,

I'm so glad you enjoyed the post.

When writing to anyone, even to a close friend, it's lovely to put your married name on the return adress. For example, if Mary Jane Greatlake is married to John Barton Greatlake, she could write Mrs. J. B. Greatlake or Mrs. John B. Greatlake on the outside of an envelope.

If you prefer to use your first name or your intitials for some reason, just be sure not to mix that with Mrs. For example, if Mary Jane Greatlake wants to use her first name, she should not write Mrs. Mary Greatlake. Instead,she would write M. J. Greatlake or Mary Greatlake on the return address.

When signing a letter to a close friend, use your first name. Your friend already knows your last name.

So, Mary Jane Greatlake would sign her letter to her best friend, Sally, in this way:


Mrs.B. said...

Thank you Elizabeth! (o:

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post! I am married to a Norwegian and we live in Norway. Society is very casual here and almost nobody uses a surname at all. I do not recall being called by my married name (in 9 years now)ever, except by my pastor (in affection rather than in formality)and on the envelope of our Christmas cards from an elderly and now deceased spinster aunt of my husbands. I cherish my married name and would love to be called Mrs. Holter-Hovind to my face. Sincerely, Gill. (Mrs. JH Holter-Hovind.)

Elizabeth said...

Hello, Mrs. J. H. Holter-Hovind:

How cute it was to sign your name correctly according to the article!

I had a friend named Solveig who came from Norway. Her last name and the name of her rather small town escapes me at the moment. If I recall correclty, she and her family lived somewhere near Bergen (sp?). I got to know her twice, seven years apart, as her husband took two year-long sabbaticals here in Tennessee and we happened to come across each other both times. (He is a professor, hence the sabbaticals.) They have three beautiful children, one of whom is probably grown by now. Alas, we have not kept up our correspondence.

Yes, society all over is becoming more and more casual. I can imagine that Norway is even more casual than the States in this regard.

We here at the Merry Rose will fondly and proudly call you Mrs. Holter-Hovind! At least you have one little corner of the blog-o-sphere where we will use your married name.

Interestingly, I saw part of a reality TV show the other day in which two minor celebrities were on their honeymoon in the Pacific. At least I assume they are minor celebrities, because I didn't recognize them. Anyhow, this celebrity couple were anything but formal people. They discussed how fun it was that people now addressed them as Mr. and Mrs.

The man remarked: It's wonderful to know that I now have a beautiful woman to share my life and my name with.

I thought that was interesting coming from such a very young man. It used to be the general sentiment among men that it was an honor to share their family name with a woman of fine character.