Etiquette Flash: Navigating the Tricky Waters of Holiday Cards

Thanksgiving means a lot of things — too much turkey, impressive sales, and the opening bell for mailing holiday cards.  Some law firms and corporations give their employees cards to send to clients and customers, but many businesswomen send cards on their own.  These cards are a great way of extending holiday wishes to coworkers, getting your name in front of a boss you barely work with, and shoring up relationships with clients.  They can also be very tricky waters — even Miss Manners ducked the question a few years ago! We’ve laid out our advice as best we can.  (If you have any corrections or thoughts, please comment!)


Who Gets ‘Em

Some people send out holiday cards to every single person in the office.  We don’t recommend taking this route unless you have a lot of free time on your hands.

Instead, we tend to send holiday cards to the following groups of people:

  • coworkers who are also friends
  • coworkers with whom we work closely (not sending a card to this group would be rude)
  • coworkers with whom we’d like to work more closely
  • coworkers who send us cards

What to Send

Avoid cards that have religious phrases printed on the inside, or any reference to Santa Claus or Christmas in the graphics.  (For example, the “Christmas Star” holiday card that we used above would be something we would only send to a coworker who we knew to be very religious — it’s a depiction of the nativity that has a verse from the Book of Matthew inside the card.)  By contrast, a card that says “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy holidays!” is something you can send to anyone.  Avoid blank cards if you’re mailing out dozens of letters — that’s way too much writing to do.

When choosing your card, aim for something sophisticated and classic that still shows a bit of your personality.  Museum stores are often a great place to shop for cards, because even if it’s not to your recipient’s liking, it’s hard to seem unsophisticated if you’re sending out art.  (Next January, note that whatever cards the museums don’t sell will be on serious discount — sometimes as low as $2 for a pack of 12 cards.  Try to stock up.)

What to Write on the Inside

When you’re sending out cards in bulk, writing as little as possible is a good goal.  The accepted bare minimum is a sign-off phrase (“All the Best” or “Fond regards”) and your signature.  (If the coworker knows you well, signing just your first name is fine.)  If you’re married, you should sign both of your names, both first and last — especially if your husband’s last name is different than your own.

In theory, inside a holiday card you should also write the recipients’ names.  For example, in a card that already has “Happy Holidays” printed inside, you may want to modify it so the inside of the card then says:  “Bob and Jane, Happy Holidays!  All my best, Corporette.”  However, this can be a bit problematic if you’re writing to the partner and his wife, but you’ve never met her.  (It’s even more problematic if her name is something like “Elizabeth,” and you’re not sure if she goes by nickname.)  It seems to us that it’s better to be thought of as cold, rather than overfamiliar — so we tend to skip the names on the inside of the card.

How to Address The Letters

Here is where things get truly tricky.  The official rules are the following:

  • If a man and woman are married, and have the same last name, the card should be addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith.”
  • If the woman has a different name from her husband, both names should be listed, with titles, on the same line:  “Mr. Bob Smith and Ms. Jane Doe.”
  • If a couple is living together, but not married, their names go on two different lines:

Mr. Bob Smith
Ms. Jane Doe
500 Broadway
New York, NY

  • If one person in the couple is a medical doctor (not a Ph.D or J.D.), the person with the title should go first — if it’s the man, “Dr. and Mrs. Bob Smith” is correct.  If it’s the woman, it should be “Dr. Jane and Mr. Bob Smith.”

Unfortunately, traditional etiquette rules don’t answer everything.  For example, if your boss is a woman who has taken her husband’s last name, you might be ill-advised to send a holiday card to “Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith.”  (Let’s face it:  modern, it ain’t.)  In that circumstance, we might buck tradition and send it to “Jane Smith and Bob Smith.”    If your boss lives with a partner of the same sex, but they live in a state that does not allow gay marriage, it seems presumptuous (to us) to put their names on the same line as if they would marry, if only given the chance.  In that circumstance, we tend to put their names on two different lines, as we would with any unmarried couple living together.  (If anyone has better information or advice for our readers, please write in.)

Double check all names.

Ask if you’re unsure how someone’s partner spells their name (and keep note of it for next year — asking once is thoughtful; asking every year is annoying.)

If the address is particularly tricky — a doctor married to a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, for instance — ask them how to properly address them.  (Note that it may not be right, but at least you won’t annoy them when you send it to them.)

Letters to Heroes

If you’re sending out a ton of letters, take some time to send a card to a service member or a veteran.  This Snopes.com article has more information, but if you can postmark your card by December 10, 2008, the American Red Cross is collecting cards for heroes.  Send the mail to:

Holiday Mail for Heroes
P.O. Box 5456
Capitol Heights, MD 20791-5456

(The article has other great information, such has how to donate a calling card or gift certificate to a service member or veteran, also.)

Further reading:

Cards: addressing a tricky issue [Miss Manners]
The 8 Rules of Business Greeting Card Etiquette [About.com]
Holiday Cards Dos and Don’t (No Confetti)
[WSJ]
Addressing Envelope with Dr. Only for Medical [Advice with Dr. Dave and Dr. Dee]

Comments

  1. I think you’re much more likely to offend someone by writing “Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith” then you are by writing “Bob and Jane Smith.” Unless you know they’re quite traditional, I would avoid that construction entirely (most married women I know who took their husband’s names hate the implication that they’re absorbed into their husband’s first name as well.)

  2. legallyblonde :

    I never use the “Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith” approach for one simple reason: I would be highly offended to be referred to as such. I have a name. Please use it. So my advice would be to use both spouses names, regardless of whether or not they share a last name, unless you know that the wife would be offended at not being referred to as “Mrs. Husband”. So I would address them as “Bob and Alice Smith”. My fiance’s grandmother is the only person to whom I know this applies, so she is the only person I address in such a way.

    Also, a question: What if the husband is Bob Smith and the wife is Alice Smith Jones–and she uses both as her official last name. As in, her firm email address is [email protected]. Do you treat them as having different last names? If not, how do you address them?

  3. legallyblonde :

    Correction to my last comment: If the husband is Bob Smith and the wife is Alice Jones Smith, how do you address them? Thanks!

  4. Another way to get around the Christmas/Holiday thing is to send New Year’s cards.

  5. Would it be proper just to hand the individual an xmas card if you work with them?

  6. legallyblonde: I took my husband’s last name and use both mine and his as my legal name (“Alice Jones Smith”) and I wouldn’t be offended by either of the following:

    Bob and Alice Jones Smith

    or

    Bob Smith and Alice Jones Smith

    However, I am offended by Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith or Bob and Alice Smith.

    Just my two cents :)

  7. Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith seems appropriate for older partners and their wives. But I think the other commenters are correct, too. For instance, I would never send a card to Mr and Mrs. Bob Smith if Jane Smith is a colleague who happens to be married

  8. I think the tricky thing about all of this — when you buck tradition with what is considered “proper etiquette” — is showing that you were bucking tradition out of consideration for people, and not out of ignorance about how to properly address a card.

    I would say that it’s incorrect to hand a coworker a card — a) reminds me a bit of Valentine’s Day in elementary school and b) will inevitably raise questions of Geez, why didn’t I get one also? (unless you give them out to every one). Plus, if you send it home you can address the family as well, who you’re actually wishing well.

    Re: New Year’s cards — you’re right, that is one way around it — but again, you don’t want to look like you just didn’t get around to mailing out your cards until after Christmas. One of the stories we linked to yesterday talked about a woman sending out Thanksgiving cards — that’s another way to go.

  9. I am going to add my voice to the chorus of “nos” on the ultra-traditional (antiquated?) “Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith” construction. I am horrified that this is still considered polite. I wouldn’t do this to my grandmother and grandfather. And, more importantly, if I received a card addressed to my husband and me in this manner, the sender would automatically go down a few notches in my estimation.

    I cannot think of a single friend or colleague who is so traditional that “Bob and Alice Smith” would offend. If it’s someone with whom I’m not on a first name basis or if I wanted to be more formal, “Mr. and Mrs. Bob and Jane Smith” seems to work fine without subsuming the wife’s entire identity!

  10. So do we *have* to send out Christmas cards? What if I just started at my firm less than 3 months ago? I feel like with all the politics involved, they could only do more bad than good.

    I like these corporate etiquette articles, they’re very helpful for a newbie like myself! Can you later cover holiday gifts for administrative assistants? I read an article about this on Above the Law last year, and remember them saying that about $100 per year you’ve been there is customary. Is that true?

  11. I am not “so traditional that ‘Bob and Alice Smith’ would offend” me, but addressing an envelope in this way would be incorrect, and if I received a card with this address, I would certainly judge the sender on his or her poor grasp of etiquette. Why are the women posting comments here so offended at the thought of being called by their husband’s name? If you really have such an issue with your identity, why did you take your husband’s last name in the first place?

    Additionally, if Bob Smith and Alice Jones Smith are a married couple, addressing an envelope to them as “Bob and Alice Jones Smith” is not only wrong, but confusing. Bob’s last name is Smith, not Jones Smith. If it is so offensive to you to be called by your husband’s name, think how bizarre it is to have your husband referred to by the wrong name!

    • legalicious07 :

      ITA! There’s no legitimate reason to be offended in these situations. Marriage done correctly is like two people truly becoming one anyway. It’s not about one person’s identity being subsumed in the other, but rather the two coming together in a single-minded, deeply personal union that is greater than the sum of the parts. If more of us understood and embraced the mystery and beauty of this holy union, our families and our nation would be a lot better off for it.

  12. It seems like what it comes down to here is: would you rather risk offending people with what appears to them to be incorrect etiquette or with what appears to be sexism, with a dash of “Which is more consistent with your own values,” thrown in. Me? I’d rather risk being thought impolite than sexist, and I’d rather not perpetuate what I see as an outdated and rather offensive practice, so my choice is clear.

  13. I completely disagree with your same-sex advice. I have to admit I would be a little offended if an associate sent me and my partner a holiday card with our names on separate lines. We are not roommates or friends, we are a couple. And it is very fair to think that if we could get married, we would. If the same-sex couple has been together for as long as you have known them, and especially if they have children together, put their names on the same line. It is much better to err on the side of treating the couple as if they were married than risk offending them by treating them like roommates.

  14. LF – Just my two cents re “If you really have such an issue with your identity, why did you take your husband’s last name in the first place?”

    Admittedly I’m not married but having grown up with a mother who kept her maiden name, I fully plan to take my husband’s last name someday. However, there’s a big difference between being “Kate Smith” vs. “Mrs. Michael Smith.” I didn’t change my name to Mrs. Michael Smith. I changed it to Kate Smith. The former says to me that I’m just an appendage of my husband. The latter still says to me that I have my own identity albeit one that now says I’m connected with my husband.

    I also second that these advice posts are incredibly helpful!

  15. I grew up in the South with very “old-fashioned” manners. I would absolutely address a card to Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith whether I knew Bob or Jane Smith. I hope that it would not make LegallyBlonde hate me forever, but if I do not know the person well enough (like we discussed the matter and she has specifically said ‘I hate things addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith’) then I am going to err on the traditional side instead of trying to be a mind reader as to whether or not someone feels they “lost their name.”

    “Bob and Jane Smith” may not be offensive but I do know people who would think less of me for being so casual. Furthermore, if you took your husband’s name, then I think you chose “Mr. and Mrs. Bob Smith.” Unless the NYTimes wedding announcements start including a line “The bride will take the bridegroom’s name so long as she does not lose her own name and will not be referred to as Mrs. Bob Smith but only as Mrs. Jane Smith” then I am sticking with the traditional.

    I do however agree to putting same-sex partners on the same line.

  16. I also agree that using honorifics is tricky territory.

    Domestic partners, irregardless of gender, are treated basically the same as married couples around here so that part is easy.

    I have a few married female co-workers who feel that women who do not take their husband’s last name are disrespectful. I have other married female co-workers who use their own last names (the majority) or a hyphenated combination of theirs and their husband’s. Since these cards are more or less a personal gesture, I would opt to skip the Mr./Ms./Dr. etc. unless you know for sure.

    That said, if you are uncomfortable with the omission, I would think asking the person their preference would show both class and respect (at least to folks in my generation, anyway).

    I am not a Christmas person not being Christian and all but I do have business acquaintances spread out around the country that I would like to send well wishes too other than for their birthdays. This post is very welcome information, indeed.

    (I pointed my VP who is into etiquette to it as well)

    lorrwill´s last blog post..A sad tale of woe

  17. On behalf of my colleagues at Pitney Bowes ( http://www.pb.com ) and the American Red Cross ( http://www.redcross.org/ ), thank you for all of your support in helping to spread the word about the “Holiday Mail for Heroes” program.

    We would like you to know that we’ve not only reached the goal of delivering one million cards to US service members, veterans and military families, but we surpassed it! And it’s all because people like you and your blog readers who got involved. View the following video for more details and a personal message of thanks from all of us: http://blip.tv/file/1643672/.

    We could not have done it without you.

  18. Just wanted to say that I totally agree w/ the comment re: same sex couples.

  19. I agree that traditional forms of address do not capture the full range of modern pairings so I’ve had to make up my own conventions:

    Dr. and Mr. Alice and Bob Smith
    Mr. Bob Smith and Mr. James Jones
    Drs. Bob and Alice Smith
    Mr. and Mrs. Bob and Alice Smith

  20. An easy fix for a couple with children is simply to address the holiday card to “The Smith Family”. Avoids the problems discussed above re: who wants to be called what, and inclues the little ones in the greeting.

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