Sunday, December 13, 2020

Holiday Cards and Gender

When my wife applied for her first job, shortly after moving to New York City in the mid-1980s, she addressed her cover letters to “Dear Sir or Madam.” At the time, I thought that sounded awkward, and had suggested that “Dear Sir” was generic enough to include women. She disagreed, and it is a good thing she did. The job she got was with a small law firm that had a male and a female partner, and they tossed out all the applications that said “Dear Sir,” which as I remember it now, was about half the applications. In my defense, female university students were still referred to as “girls” in the Midwest back then, and I had just learned to say “women,” which was standard on the East Coast. The culture was changing.

Words change meaning, and have different meaning in different places. In Hong Kong, female university students rejected being called “women” because that implied they were married. I remember one student saying “woman” had a sexual connotation, implying the person was not a virgin. Female students preferred the term “girl.”

When we were in Hong Kong, we often did not find time to write Christmas or New Year cards. With the end of semester rush (including grading papers, final exams, and preparing for trips over the holiday), it was often impossible to get the cards out. One year we sent them out after Christmas from my parents’ home in Indiana. Twice, I think we sent out Chinese New Year cards since we were so late. Gradually—and perhaps because we did not always send cards—we also received fewer cards. I thought email and social media would perhaps kill holiday cards. But in fact, now that we’re back in the US, we’ve started getting a lot more cards. I’m also making more of a point to send cards (though it does not look good for this year; I’m procrastinating by writing a blog post).

Card from MO Attorney General, using holiday to build name recognition 

One thing that surprises me is how many cards we get that are addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Joe Bosco.” There are a number of problems with this way of addressing the card. First of all, “Joe” is informal, what people call me in everyday life, but if one adds the title “Mr. and Mrs.” then it seems the intent is to be formal, so it should be “Joseph.” Is there anyone whose birth certificate says just “Joe”? (Actually, I just looked this up, and the answer is, unfortunately, yes; “Joe” is the 705th most common name of 2019 [just below Lochlan and ahead of Carmelo, and poor “Joey” is 776th, right after Clyde], while “Joseph” is 24th). 

But more surprising is how my wife is eliminated from the address. The female half of the couple becomes just the appendage of the male, since only the male is named. This reminds me of a famous article in anthropology, “The named and the nameless: Gender and person in Chinese society” by Rubie Watson, which talks about how in the past, married women in south China were virtually nameless and how their names did not appear on their tombstones.

This way of addressing cards is especially surprising because most of the cards we get are from people we know through my wife’s professional contacts. In fact, most cards are from people I barely even know, but that she knows through work or boards on which she serves. They may know of me, but in many cases we’ve not even met.

I suppose that people write their cards like this because they are being traditional. The sending of holiday cards itself is traditional (not to say anachronistic). And the holidays are a time of traditional foods and rituals. But really, people should at least address the card to “Mr. Joseph and Mrs. Sara Bosco,” (or, if they want to be very hierarchical and proper, “Dr. Joseph and Mrs. Sara Bosco”--even though I'm not a “real” doctor). Or better, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph and Sara Bosco. Maybe “Joseph and Sara Bosco” (removing the titles) is better still, so it doesn’t look like my surname is “Joseph.” And, if we remove the title, then they can justifiably shorten my name and write “Joe and Sara Bosco.”

 And come to think of it, since they are really writing for my wife, they should put her name first: “Sara and Joe Bosco.” We never get cards like that; the “tradition” (aka patriarchy) of putting the male first is strong. It is hard to actually get angry at people who follow tradition; they probably worry that if they change the order they might offend me. (As a result, they offend my wife!)

 It is time to update these traditions, and to address cards with a bit more thought.

1 comment:

Bill Watkins said...

At least we are not in Germany, where Sara would be Frau Professor Doktor Bosco. Good post, Joe.