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Miss Manners: Traditionalists search in vain for missing courtesy titles

DEAR MISS MANNERS: When did it become usual to omit the titles Miss, Ms., Mrs. or Mr. in mail addresses? Most of the cards I receive are addressed simply with my first and last name.

This is done not just by young people, but also by older people, even some my age, and I am 85. Is this commonplace among people who are not courtesy-minded, or is it part of the growing lack of class and refinement in our society?

GENTLE READER: It began with a lack of refinement on the part of recipients of letters. This was an unfortunate consequence of the well-intended change allowing married ladies flexibility in styling their formal names.

The trouble started two or three centuries ago, when it became standard to use the husband’s full name when addressing the wife, as in Mrs. Clarence Huckleberry. Miss Manners was amazed at how long it took for those ladies to notice the consequences: successive wives of the same person taking the same name, no sensible way to be addressed properly at work, and so on.

Then Ms. came back into use, as it had been for the previous centuries as an abbreviation for “Mistress,” the once-respectable honorific that went with first names regardless of marital status. That was an especially timely revival, as more brides were keeping their original names.

But this time, it arrived as an option, offering freedom, at last, from the rigidity of a single system.

And what did everyone do with this newly granted freedom? Ladies who used Ms. for themselves started offending their grandmothers by denying them the formal names they had always used, which was especially hurtful in the case of widows. And they became the targets of those who spurned what they thought of as a newly minted, awkward title.

Accusations were hurled: “They think my husband owns me!” “I’m proud of having my husband’s name, and how dare they deny it to me?” All very tedious.

The situation was compounded by the difficulty of remembering everyone’s personal choice. Miss Manners still hears from those who are indignant at not being addressed as they wish, and those who are bewildered at being vilified for a simple mistake. We are at the ridiculous state where it is possible to insult people simply by sending them invitations or letters of thanks.

Many victims of this just got fed up and stopped using any courtesy titles. Miss Manners agrees that this is a crude solution to a problem that would not exist if people only gave one another the benefit of the doubt and showed some tolerance and flexibility.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: As a homemaker, I do not have a business card to hand out. Is it proper to ask to exchange phone numbers or e-mails with strangers and to let them know you would like to become more acquainted?

I am quite friendly and would like to possibly make new friends of people I meet in a store, at a dance, on a trip, etc. Once I asked another woman in a restaurant if she would like some company while dining. We had a pleasant time together.

Is that proper, and could I have asked her for a phone number? My grown children seem to make friends of strangers in situations like these.

GENTLE READER: It’s not improper if you don’t scare the stranger. There are enough scams around to make people wary of giving out such information.

Miss Manners suggests that you volunteer yours instead. You need only jot down your number or e-mail and say, “I’ve enjoyed talking to you and would be delighted if you got in touch.”

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

2012, by Judith Martin

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