7 Everyday Etiquette Conundrums, Solved
What’s in a name? A lot of potential tension. Modern Manners columnists Catherine Newman (etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy) and Michelle Slatalla (professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and former columnist for the New York Times) help clear upconfusion with monikers, epithets, and titles.
My husband and I are very fond of our many nieces and nephews. However, we don’t love that some of them refer to us by our first names. I have asked them to call me Aunt. My request is always ignored. Am I expecting too much? —K.K.
I suspect that your young relatives are not trying to upset you. But they are being thoughtless. You have the right to be called by your preferred name or honorific, and your family ought to abide by that request. If your nieces and nephews are children, have a quiet word with their parents. Explain the source of your discomfort: Do you feel it’s inappropriate to have kids address you by your first name? Or do you worry it makes you seem like one of their peers? Whatever the reason, tell the parents and ask them to rectify the situation. If the "kids" are actually adults, treat them like the grown-ups they are by talking to them frankly. Explain that no matter how old they are, you see them as the younger generation and wish to be treated as a respected elder. Assuming that your relationship with them is solid, this chat should solve the problem.
When sending personal correspondence, such as Christmas cards and invitations, what is the proper way to address a blended family? For instance, I know several families in which the mother has remarried and has a different last name than her children. I want to ensure that all family members feel included. —K.C.
However complex the families may be, addressing them properly should be relatively straightforward. Sending a greeting to John Brown, Jane Smith, and their assorted offspring? It’s clearest and easiest to identify the grouping with last names joined by an ampersand: “The Brown & Smith Family.” Avoid using a hyphen, which would suggest, incorrectly in this case, that they’ve merged their last names. If you wish to be more traditional, you can include first names and, if you like, honorifics, addressing your cards to “Mr. John Brown, Dr. Jane Smith, and Family.” If you want to add the kids specifically, skip “and Family” and add first names only to the line below: “Alice, Skip, and Robby.” Of course, it’s the fact that you’re sending cards, and caring so much about their recipients, that matters most.
My husband’s family insists on calling me by a shortened form of my name, even though I have gone by my full name my entire life. How do I get them to stop? —K. M.
I am a lifelong Catherine who still gets called Cathy by people I meet—a presumption that seems bizarre, given that I introduce myself by my full name. So I hear you. In this situation, I think you should ask your husband for an assist. "Hey, Aunt Sally," he could say. “Elizabeth likes to be called by her full name. She doesn’t care for the nickname Beth." And if that doesn’t work? Enlist a sister- or cousin-in-law to join the two of you in your cause. If a few relatives start referring to you as Elizabeth, it’s more likely to catch on among the others. But if these dogged efforts fail, try not to be too irritated. My guess is that these family members aren’t trying to upset you; they probably just think they’re being chummy and casual with you. (Elizabeth? We don’t really know her yet. But Beth—she’s a real pal!) Try to cut them some slack.
I started working at my present company five months ago. A woman in my department (with whom I’ve chatted several times) never seems to remember me. I find this strange. Whenever she brings new team members past my desk, she struggles to introduce me because she apparently forgets that we’ve met before. What should I do? Should I act like I’ve forgotten her, too, or remind her that we know each other? —J.L.
Now that my own brain is gracelessly aging, I have grown more sympathetic to people’s lapses of memory. It used to feel slightly off-putting when anyone forgot that she had met me, especially if it happened repeatedly. But since I’ve become the person squinting at, say, other parents at drop-off and racking my brain, I can see how it happens. In this situation—and since you seem to think that she’s being genuinely forgetful, not merely rude or snooty—be kind and judicious. If your coworker hesitates to introduce you, extend your hand and introduce yourself; the gesture will rescue her and remind her of your name. When the two of you are alone (and it’s clear that she hasn’t a clue who you are), just smile and offer a memory jog: "Daphne, it’s nice to see you. How is that cute pug of yours? In case you forgot, I’m Jennifer, by the way." Above all, don’t take her absent-mindedness personally. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to practice gracious behavior.
Ever since I completed my doctorate, I prefer to be referred to as “Dr.” It annoys me to be called “Ms.” or “Mrs.,” considering that it took seven long years to complete my degree. Is there a gracious way to do this without sounding like a total snob? —J.H.
I have a Ph.D., too, and its invisibility can sometimes feel disappointing, since few people think to use the title with anyone other than a medical professional or a professor. If the person is someone with whom you have a casual relationship—say, the accountant you see once a year—don’t request the honorific. It’s really not worth the ensuing awkwardness or, yes, snob potential. But if this person is someone you see regularly (your primary-care physician, your child’s teacher), go ahead and ask for what you want. Try saying a version of what you say here: “I hate to sound like a snob, but I have a Ph.D., and I actually prefer to be called ’Dr.’” You worked hard to earn your degree, and you’re justifiably proud. It’s fair to request a title that you identify with, one that best communicates the entirety of the person you are.
When I got married, I kept my last name. Some people have made discourteous comments about my choice. How should I handle such situations? —Name withheld by request.
You wouldn’t think keeping your own name would be such a bold political statement these days. But as you’re finding out, any lifestyle choice you make that differs from someone else’s can provoke curiosity or even skepticism. I, too, kept my name when I got married. Nonetheless, my father-in-law, Mr. Quittner, a lawyer who represented my husband and me in the purchase of our first house, wrote “Michelle Slatalla AKA Quittner” on every page of the sales contract. There were dozens of pages. I reminded myself that he meant well and just wanted to protect me legally. Since then I’ve been on the receiving end of comments ranging from merely confused to borderline mean, but in each case I’ve made one reply: “This is the name I got at birth, and I am attached to it.” Give it a go—politely. With luck, your graciousness will inspire your critics to be equally respectful in return.
The last two times I have visited my doctor’s office, I have been called “honey” or “sweetie” by my female physician and/or her staff members. When did this become an appropriate way to address a patient? And how do I let them know that I do not appreciate these terms of endearment? —L.M.
I’m not sure it’s entirely appropriate, but it is understandable. In a busy office, the staff may default to a term like “honey” to avoid calling a patient by the wrong name. They may not realize that such words, which can often sound patronizing, make it harder for you to feel dignified. That flimsy paper robe doesn’t help, either. Give the medical staff the benefit of the doubt, and remind them of your name by saying something like this: “While I take it as a compliment—since the last person who called me ’honey’ was a liquor-store clerk who asked to see my ID in 1981—I’d prefer it if you called me Ms. Mancuso.” If that doesn’t solve the problem, the next time someone calls you by a term that’s too adorable by half, reply (with a smile), “OK, thanks, sugar!”
Want to ask your own etiquette question? Submit your social conundrums to Catherine at realsimple.com/modernmanners. Selected letters will be featured on the website each month.