Like so many Washington worker bees, Susan Hillenbrand toils at a downtown trade association. Hers is the National Solid Wastes Management Association, where "part of my job entails filling hundreds of mailed requests for publications," Susan writes.
"The problem? At least 90 percent of the letters I receive are addressed either to 'Dear Sir' or 'Gentlemen.'
"I can't tell you how dispiriting it is to be addressed as the wrong gender, over and over, day after day. It makes me feel like a nonentity. When will people learn that 'To Whom It May Concern' is almost always the best salutation to use?"
No disrespect meant to Susan Hillenbrand, for she has certainly fingered a large, recurring problem. But I don't think "To Whom It May Concern" does the trick.
TWIMC may solve the gender problem, but it flunks the smoothness test. Other sex-neutral choices? Equally troubled.
"Dear National Solid Wastes Management Association" -- colder than a strawberry daiquiri.
"Dear Sir or Madam" -- covers the field pretty thoroughly, but sounds humorless and bloodless, as if a computer wrote it instead of a person.
"Dear Addressee" -- only the post office would do something like this.
"Dear Publications Ordering Department" -- not bad, but it hardly treats the Susans of this world like individuals.
"Dear Gentlepersons" -- you've got to be kidding.
The real problem here is that most of Susan's correspondents don't know who she is -- or that she is. They sit at their desks in Akron or Sheboygan and imagine that there must be a humanoid filling orders in an office on Rhode Island Avenue in Zip Code 20036. But they picture some male built like The Refrigerator pushing a hand truck around. They don't picture Susan Hillenbrand: Living, Breathing Woman.
Susan's correspondents could easily pick up the phone and learn her name. They could probably look it up in a NSWMA guidebook somewhere. But they'd rather cast their requests in lazy language that belongs to another age.
My solution? No salutation.
It may sound "unprofessional," but think about it for a second.
You never have to guess that a person doing a particular job must belong to one sex or the other.
You never have to presume familiarity when you shouldn't, or vice versa.
You never have to run the risk of getting the gender of a Sandy or a Pat wrong.
Best of all, you wear out the typewriter ribbon less quickly. As any Washington office-inhabitant well knows, whoever wins the hearts of the accounting department rules the world.
Children's Hospital errata:
Garlands of roses and bushels of apologies to the gang in Lab 22000, Nuclear Weapons Radiation Effects Laboratory, Harry Diamond Laboratories.
In reporting this group's donation to our just-ended 1985-86 fund-raising campaign, I said they contributed $37.10. In fact, they sent along $207.10. Very sorry, troops.
Equal doses of sorry are hereby aimed toward the northern reaches of Montgomery County, in the direction of James Bogard, a teacher at Laytonsville Elementary School.
I reported that teachers and families at Laytonsville contributed $134 to the Children's campaign "in honor of" Brother Bogard. He called to say that the contributions were not made in his honor. They were made at his suggestion.
James also said that reports of contributions in his honor "made me sound dead" -- a rumor that he is understandably anxious to scotch.
Congratulations on your continuing existence, James Bogard, and sorry for my blunder(s).
John MacAfee of Alexandria overheard it in the Frankfurt airport last month.
An American tourist sneezed.
A German policeman said, "Gesundheit."
"How wonderful!" said the American to the cop. "You speak English!" NOTE TO READERS:
Comics fans have probably noticed that my daily right-hand neighbor, Bloom County, is not there this morning. The reason is a good and a sad one:
Berke Breathed, Bloom County's creator, was injured recently in an ultralight plane accident in New Mexico. Breathed is in good condition following surgery. However, he has been forced to suspend the strip for between four and eight weeks while he recuperates.
Until Bloom County returns, Cheeverwood will take its place.