DEAR ABBY: During the 10 years I have been with my husband, I have called my mother-in-law "Martha." I have just learned that she has been harboring resentment about it because she hadn't given me "permission" to call her by her first name. Apparently she would like me to call her "Ms. Smith." I didn't hear it from her, but from my new sister-in-law who does call her Ms. Smith and has been instructed to continue doing so.
I don't remember our first meeting or when I started calling her Martha. I had no idea she has been offended this entire time. Now I'm not sure what to do. Should I ask her about it? We're not particularly close, and it would be an awkward conversation. My husband is no help. He thinks we're both being silly. -- THE OTHER MS. SMITH
DEAR O.M.S.: Martha appears to be not only off-putting, but also intimidating. Rather than speak her mind and make her preferences known, she nurses grievances in silence and talks behind people's backs. Your cowardly husband should admit there's a problem and try to build bridges instead of dismissing your concerns as "silly." (Does he call her "Ms. Smith," too?)
Pick up the phone and call Martha. Tell her what your sister-in-law said and calmly ask if it's true. If she says yes, ask why she didn't tell you herself years ago -- because if she had, you would have respected her wishes. Then, with a smile in your voice, assure her that "Ms. Smith" is what she'll be hearing in the future. (At least that's what you'll call her to her face.) It shouldn't cause a problem because you're not particularly close, and I assume your chats and contacts with her are infrequent.