The Perils of Writing to Someone You Don’t Know
From a reader:
I have a question. I work for a large Canadian law firm and I’ve noticed that many of the people here do not use Mr. or Ms., but rather address letters to “John Smith.” Have I missed something? Is this proper now?
It may not be “proper,” but sometimes it’s safer.
Addressing a letter in the old days was a fairly straightforward undertaking.
If the name of the person was “Michael Jones,” you’d say “Dear Sir,” or “Dear Mr. Jones.”
If you were writing to a woman you could safely address her, married or unmarried, as “Dear Madame.” Back when the great goal of most women was to find “Mr. Right,” you could take a chance on starting a letter “Dear Mrs. Jones” even if you didn’t know the recipient’s marital status. If she wasn’t married, she’d probably giggle at the error.
In these more enlightened days, knowing how to begin a letter to a person you don’t know is like walking through a minefield.
Current letter-writing guidelines will tell you to address a man as “Mr. Jones” and a woman as “Ms. Jones,” but that’s pretty simplistic, given the complications of feminism, reactions to feminism, multiculturalism, and creative child-naming.
Ideally, the letter writer will check out the person being written to so as to know what form of address to use. But what if, despite your best efforts, you just don’t know?
How, for example, would you start a letter to Drew Barrymore, Daryl Hannah, or Michael Learned if you don’t know all three are women?
How are you supposed to figure out the gender of Jordan Dane, Alex Wright, Cory Black. Elliot Simpson, or Jamie Johnson if you know nothing about them but their names?
In the age of the world-wide web, what about a name like “Ananda Singh?” A name ending in -a looks “feminine” to me, but in India, “Ananda” is a guy’s name.
Say that you do know that the person you’re writing to is a woman. Are you sure you want to address her as “Ms. Jones?” She may have a Ph.D. and prefer Dr. Jones. She may be a reactionary housewife and detest being called Ms. Or maybe she’s single and proud of it and wants everyone to address her as “Miss Jones.”
The people at your law firm are probably less concerned about proper usage than they are about avoiding ruffled feathers. Sometimes the best course of action is to play it safe by using the full name instead trying to juggle a courtesy title.