How many ways can you manage to offend people by sending them Christmas cards?
At the moment, Miss Manners is not considering accounts of one's achievements sent to those who don't care, printed and unsigned mass mailings sent to those who expected something personal, religious messages sent to those who don't practice that religion or jokes sent to people who are not amused.
Any of these will do the job, but you can cause offense before the recipients of your good wishes even see the cards. They discover insults on the envelopes. A name or title has been wrongly rendered or omitted, and they are certain that they have uncovered intentional jibes.
Miss Manners is not defending the offended. Few people send out holiday cards for the purpose of annoying others. Considering that there are no universally approved forms of address nowadays, masses of tolerance are required, and little is forthcoming.
But neither is Miss Manners defending carelessness on the part of the senders. In the interests of peace on Earth, here are a few rules about addressing mail.
One is so obvious that Miss Manners would be embarrassed to mention it if she had not heard frequent complaints about its being violated. It is: Get the names right, for goodness' sake. If you don't know the person's name at least well enough to look it up, then that person doesn't know you, either, and there is no point in sending a card.
When it comes to married ladies, the problem gets trickier. Now that so many like to interpret conventional usage of whatever kind as prejudice, it is no longer safe to guess. One actually has to listen to introductions, in case husband and wife have different surnames, and one has to quiz brides about their choices.
Not only surnames but titles are in question. Mrs. Clarence Bumbleton is insulted by a card addressed to Louella and Clarence Bumbleton, and her daughter-in-law is insulted by those addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Bumbleton. For that matter, the family matriarch is beside herself with indignation when her mail is addressed to Mrs. or Ms. Sybil Bumbleton.
They are all prepared to explain why, but Miss Manners is too wearied by it all to repeat the arguments. Suffice it to say that there is no one feminine honorific to which no one takes umbrage, not even -- or perhaps especially not -- the neutral "Ms.," which was revived for that express purpose.
Omitting titles altogether, which most people now do -- some out of exasperation, others out of ignorance -- does not solve these problems. In addition to being curt and ugly, it opens the question of which of a couple's names comes first.
Omitting the name of a wife or partner makes things worse. A "refusal to recognize my existence" is high on the list of insulting interpretations. "And family" only suggests that the names were not considered worth learning.
You begin to see why the good wishes inside are so often doomed before they are read. Miss Manners can only plead for more research and record-keeping on the part of the well-wishers, and more faith, among the recipients, that they have not been wished ill.
Dear Miss Manners:
I know that it is incorrect to brag about our children, but what about our grandchildren? Mine are so wonderful and I am so proud of them that sometimes I cannot contain myself. Am I being unspeakably gauche?
Oh, no. Just touchingly tedious.
Being unable to contain yourself is no excuse for being a bore, Miss Manners is afraid. But you can probably broker a deal. Learn to draw others out about their grandchildren or other sources of pride, and they will be grateful enough to listen to you.
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2005, Judith Martin