Q. When two women are married to each other, how do you address their correspondence?
K. R., New York, NY
A. Your question is a good one that needs clarifying. People want to be respectful and address correspondence correctly. Your best bet is to ask how the couple wishes to be addressed, just as you would check to see if a married woman uses her maiden name or has taken a married name.
Gay and lesbian couples, married or not, are addressed using the same conventions as for heterosexual couples. Couples who operate as a social unit are addressed together on the same line:
Mr. and Mrs. George Curran,
or, for an unmarried couple or a woman who keeps her maiden name,
Ms. Katherine O’Reilly and Mr. George Curran.
Either name can come first, or go alphabetically by last name. If one of the couple has a professional title that “outranks” the other, the person with the title is listed first:
Dr. Katherine O’Reilly and Mr. George Curran
Rev. George Curran and Ms. Katherine O’Reilly
In the case of two married women, use “Ms.” when using titles, and put the names on the same line, connected by “and”:
Ms. Nancy Jones and Ms. Sally Smith
The simplest way to decide who is listed first is alphabetically by last name. As for any other couple, make an exception if one of the women has a professional title:
Dr. Sally Smith and Ms. Nancy Jones.
The same rule applies when addressing two married men:
Mr. Thomas Singleton and Mr. Robert Waterman
The same conventions also hold if you are not using titles. Use “and” between the two names and go alphabetically by last name.
Another interesting issue arises when addressing a person you don’t know who has a first name such as Alex, which could be male or female. You’ll have to do some sleuthing: Google the person, check the person’s business website, or call the person’s place of business. If all these options fail, then leave off the title altogether, rather than commit a serious faux pas.
Salutations in emails have their own pitfalls. Should you address an email to a new contact by using the person’s first name—Dear Peter—or should you use a title and last name—Dear Mr. Peterson? Defer to the formal. You can always switch to the informal later, but going from the informal to the formal is more difficult. Also, look for clues in the person’s signature. If the signature includes both the first and last names—Peter Peterson—then stick to title and last name in your replies or new emails. But if the signature line includes just the first name, then you can use it in a reply or new email.
Be careful about taking liberties with shortened first names. If the signature is “Peter,” use “Peter” in replies or new emails rather than trying to be familiar by using “Pete.”
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.