Saturday, December 26, 2009

Letters vs. E-mail: Sincerely, Yours Truly, and Best Wishes

Personal letters numbered among the joys of my life when I was growing up. Anything in the mail was a delight, even chain letters, though these were viewed with suspicion by parents and teachers. In third grade we learned the etiquette and format of letter-writing. Date and return address at the top, then the polite greeting, then the gossip, thank-yous, or condolences, and finally the choice of closing, Sincerely, Yours Truly, or Best Wishes. Then we acquired stationery and fountain pens. Then we got pen-pals. What could be more exciting than a letter from a pen-pal in Australia? A complete stranger, but who knew? Maybe we could be best friends someday. That was the sort of thing that happened in books.

I have cards and letters dating back to the ‘80s. A friend and I from grad school exchanged silly cards with letters enclosed until the late ‘90s. She and I continued to know each other so well that we visited back and forth across the country. We confided in our letters about boyfriend problems and work. She called me when she gave birth. She invited me to take a vacation with her and her child (though I couldn’t go because of work).

And, of course, I kept in touch with other friends through occasional chatty letters, but only those who loved writing kept in touch.

E-mail changed all that. Suddenly it was too much trouble for us to print out a letter, put it in an envelope, and lick a stamp. Everybody was on e-mail. Our short, badly-written missives went back and forth at the speed of dark. We didn’t know each other as well. I didn’t bother to revise my notes anymore, nor did anyone else. I knew everybody and nobody. I knew lots of complete strangers but I didn’t know my friends as well. It’s a quandary. How can we write so much and lose intimacy?

E-mail is a blessing and a curse. I have “met,” sometimes in person and sometimes only virtually, some charming, brilliant people who have similar interests. My e-mail friends are great, but my “real” friends are more like "e-friends" these days. It’s easier to exchange a few efficient e-mails than to correspond by "snail mail" Anyway, aren’t we older and colder now? Isn’t it a natural process that we don’t confide as much? Or has e-mail destroyed our innocence?

People in the traditional workplace learn to keep e-mails short. This is smart. I don’t know about you, but e-mail has sometimes screwed me over. Send a snotty e-mail about the vagaries of your boss--and, trust me, there’s always a “friend” out there willing to forward it. And perhaps this leads to a holding back in letter-writing too.

My sole remaining correspondent and I agree that people have become too lazy to write letters. We love our e-mail friends, but something is lost when people cease to consider letters an art. You don’t keep e-mail in a folder. Or at least I don’t. I probably get 50 e-mails a day.

Emily Post knew what she was talking about in 1922 when she wrote:

"The letter you write, whether you realize it or not, is always a mirror which reflects your appearance, taste and character. A “sloppy” letter with the writing all pouring into one corner of the page, badly worded, badly spelled, and with unmatched paper and envelope—even possibly a blot—proclaims the sort of person who would have unkempt hair, unclean linen and broken shoe laces; just as a neat, precise, evenly written note portrays a person of like characteristics.'

And that's the problem with e-mail. it catches me with my hair unkempt and my prose limp and graceless. Everything's a rough draft on the internet. (If Emily Post could see this blog, she'd have a fit.)

But I still have 30 years’ worth of cards and letters in a folder. And they mean something to me, if not to anyone else. It's evidence of another era. And who know where we're going with this one?

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