The Pitfalls of Addressing Mail

By | Dec 7, 2009

Once upon a time, addressing mail was simple.  If you weren’t sure of the proper way to address people, you picked up your handy-dandy etiquette book, and it told you everything you needed to know.  And 20 or 30 years ago, whatever it said would have been right.


Let’s face it, times have changed.  There are more challenges these days.  Same sex couples, hyphenated names, spouses with different names, things the old etiquette teachers couldn’t even begin to fathom.

After having the question come up last week, I did a Google search on the topic, and guess what I found out?  Yep, hardly anyone agrees with anyone else on this question.  So, after looking at various etiquette and wedding sites and even Miss Manners, I added some commonsense and knowledge of current American culture to come up with my own set of rules.

The Administrative Arts Guide to Addressing Envelopes and Letters

Single People

This one is easy.  Address it to Jane Smith or Ms. Jane Smith, depending on how formal you want the address to be.  Regular business mail often leaves off the honorifics, but I’m old fashioned and like to include them.  If the person has given a preferred honorific, use that. However, these days, when in doubt, use “Ms.”  Etiquette says “Miss”, but many women these days don’t feel their marital status has anything to do with how they should be addressed, and I’ve found those on the “Ms.” side tend to have a stronger preference than those who use “Miss”.

Married Couples

Here’s where we start to run into trouble.  All of the etiquette books will tell you to address mail to married couples as “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith”.  This is one of those areas where I must not so respectfully disagree with the manners police.  This isn’t 1950.  A woman isn’t considered to be an appendage of her husband.  It is my fervent desire that we can forever bury this form of address and never refer to it ever again.  We desperately need to update these rules for the current times.

Here’s my list of ways to address married couples (caveat: these rules suppose the parties have not indicated their desired honorific):

  1. Same last name: Mr. and Mrs. John and Anne Smith.  See, it’s pretty, and it acknowledges both people, not just the husband.  If the wife has indicated a preference for “Ms.”, of course, this would change to “Mr. and Ms. John and Anne Smith”.  If you want to be informal, you can just have John and Anne Smith.  One more caveat.  If this is business mail and the wife is your primary client, I personally would put the wife first: Ms. and Mr. Anne and John Smith.
  2. Different last name:  Mr. John Smith and Ms. Anne Simpson (or Mrs. if she has indicated a preference).  This would cover hyphenated names as well, if only one hyphenates.  Use this also for unmarried couples who live together.
  3. Professional titles: If one spouse has a professional title use “Dr. and Mrs. John and Anne Smith”, or “Mr. and Dr. Anne Smith”.  Note, if you use the honorific, you don’t need to use the professional suffix, such as MD.
  4. One way to get around all of these is to just list each person on different lines.  Of course, one problem with this is if you are using labels.  Do you have enough space on the label for 2 lines?  Etiquette books say to do this without an “and” between, but I like the “and” to acknowledge the relationship.

Mr. John Smith and
Ms. Anne Smith

Same Sex Couples

While same sex couples have been entirely ignored in etiquette books of the past, I would hope that today’s assistant will give these couples the respect of acknowledging their relationship.  I found quite a few websites talking about this, but I rather liked Miss Manners’s take the best.  While Mr. and Mr. or Mrs. and Mrs. would probably be technically correct, Miss Manners points out that both “Mr.” and “Mrs.” have plurals, which are “Messrs.” and “Mesdames”.  So, you would have “Messrs. John and Alfred Smith” or “Mesdames Anne and Julia Smith”.  Personally, I just love that address, but then I’m hokey like that.  Again, you could solve the whole thing by addressing them each on a separate line assuming you have space on your label.

Consider Your Cultural Climate

One thing to consider when making your addressing etiquette rules is the cultural climate in which you work.  If your company and clientele is very politically and culturally conservative, you might want to stick with the old ways as instructed in the etiquette books.  Odds are you won’t have an angry feminist calling to complain about being addressed as “Mrs. John Smith”.  However, if your clientele is on the left-leaning side of the political/cultural spectrum, then you will definitely want to look at some more forward thinking forms of address.

Be Consistent

The key, though, is consistency.  Come up with a set of rules and use them consistently throughout your database.  If you have a set of rules laid out from the start, no matter who is doing the data entry, you’ll get consistency throughout.  If you don’t have a set of rules in place, though, every person will enter according to their own whim, and you’ll end up with a mish-mash in your database.

What are Your Rules?

So, tell us, what are your rules?  Do you or your company have a standardized way of addressing envelopes?  I’d love to hear how other companies handles things.  Leave a comment and tell us what you do.

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