Friday, September 10, 2010

An Open Tutorial for Letter-Writers

I would like to offer a few words of advice to people who work for banks, utility companies, tax offices, and other groups that regularly send out bills, statements, invoices, and other letters.

There are 3 titles in the English language for women who are neither doctors, members of the clergy, nor royalty. They are Mrs. (mis-sus), Ms. (miz), and Miss (miss). They have three distinct pronunciations and three distinct uses.

Mrs. is used to address women who are married or widowed and use their spouse's last name. It indicates that a woman has chosen to drop or move the surname of her birth from her legal name.

Miss is used to address girls who are not only not married, but are under the age of 16. In years past it was also used in regard to spinsters, but over the past century this has become rude. Unless specifically requested or signed by the woman in question, Miss is a diminutive term for children or women who are significantly younger than you.

Ms. is used to address women you don't know, or whose marital status and age are irrelevant to the content of your letter. All it indicates is that you acknowledge (or believe) the recipient is female.

Many single women of voting age in English-speaking countries do not appreciate being called Miss. They may tolerate it from the elderly or members of their church or family, but it is not appropriate or acceptable to refer to anyone as a Miss in a business-related letter.

Why, you ask? Why would a woman be offended if you pointed out she was single and young in her electric bill? Let's think a moment. It is currently the year 2010. Only in the past 150 years of recorded history (there's quite a bit more than that on file) have any women had the right to handle their own property and finances. Before that women's land, investments, and even wages were automatically transferred to her husband upon their marriage. Before That, women didn't have the right to own any property or receive any wages, and all finances regarding her went straight from her father to her husband upon their marriage. Denying ownership and stewardship to women been a huge component of our legal subordination for thousands of years.

As of now, in all matters relating to business, unless a mortgage payer has decided to guarantee her repayments against the value of a relative's fiscal holdings, she is dealt with not as a wife or daughter but as a customer. Her age and marital status are utterly irrelevant. She does not need any guarantee or permission from a man to borrow, loan, buy, or earn anything.

That said, any woman you meet can tell you stories about dealing with men who ignore or dislike that. Several times I have been told by a workman that he'll only discuss repairs and matters of payment with the "man of the house." I've even replied to this with "I am the responsible party, you can talk to me." and been told no, have him call. (On one memorable occasion, I was living in a university residence and was told this by an on-campus maintenance guy.) Some of these terse conversations have actually ended with the grunt excusing himself with the phrase, "you just give this invoice to your daddy, Miss." or "just let your husband know, ma'am."

Miss is a condescending and insulting term. It suggests you think that a woman is not as wise, experienced, or capable as you. If you're 90, fair enough. You can even get away with calling a 30-year old bachelor 'little master.' But for the rest of us, save it for children. Mrs. is just as bad with strangers--you don't know me. You don't know anything about me.

The fact that a woman has a different name from the man or woman she lives with says nothing about her relationship to him or her. They could be married. They could be room-mates. They could be siblings. They could be lesbians. She could be married to someone else. She could be 80. She could be your mom. As long as she doesn't default on her payments, her age and who she's bonking don't mean a thing to your business relationship.

Gas company, electric company, water company, bank... I wrote Ms. on your forms. But ALL OF YOU BACKWARD, PATERNALISTIC, 19TH CENTURY YAHOOS WITH GERIATRIC CORPORATE POLICIES have sent bills and statements to someone named MISS G. If I wanted to be called MISS, I would have told you I was called MISS. But I didn't. Because I'm not. Because I find it demeaning. I told you the exact opposite. I've SENT YOU LETTERS informing you that I am not MISS. And still you insist. Why? You don't need to know my age or marital status. Why do you give a shit? You don't call Ben 'Master' or 'Son'--why do you think it's okay to talk the fuck down to me?

MS is the girl equivalent of MR. It means you are someone. Just someone. Not a member of a partnership, not a kid, not an old person, not a dependent, not anyone you should treat differently from anyone else. I insist upon calling every woman I contact Ms unless she prefers a different honorific. If she wants to be called Mrs. I'm not going to stop her. If she wants to be called Miss I may look at her funny but that's her right. My grandma still likes to be called Mrs. Kenneth G, and while I find that disgustingly offensive, it makes her happy. So great.

I just want to be addressed as a face-value person. Men are lucky--they're called Mr. Surname from the day they're born. I was born and always will be Ms.Me. Leave it at that.

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