“I’d rather mingle souls by letter than live a life of regret through email”

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today regrets the passing of the letter, handwritten on Basildon Bond, which he thinks is so much better at conveying the author’s intended feelings, requiring more time to compose and being less likely to be sent without some thought as to its likely reception.  Why, he asks, do we need emoticons in emails when we do not use them in letters and why do we press “send” too soon?

“[…] the computer keyboard, especially for touch-typists, is an invisible piano on which we play instantly and extempore. First musings race into fully-formed words and sentences with no pause for revision, let alone perfection. As soon as they are on screen they acquire validity. Over them hovers the dreaded send button, itching to be pressed and behind which lurk a hundred links, addresses and possible misdirections. Send is always pressed too soon.”

Simon Jenkins overlooks a crucial difference between the letter and the email.  The email does not only replace the letter.  It also often replaces the phone call and the face-to-face conversation because of the distance, geographical. temporal or emotional, between those involved.  Either we cannot speak to someone or we do not want to. 

Some of us would prefer the face-to-face conversation, whilst others revel in the void between the speaker and the spoken to, and the time-lag between bouts of conversation that can be as short or as long as we choose.   For those who wish it, the e-mail leaves a sound-proofed smoked glass wall between the sender and the recipient at which the recipient can only scratch in frustration.  It is fertile ground for passive-aggression, easily setting up a rat-like addictive response in those waiting for a response.  It is rather like a tennis match when you cannot see over the net.  I hit the ball to you and it disappears.  I do not know if it was out, or you have gone, or you caught it and are holding on to it, enjoying it or batting it up and down as a prelude to its return.  Only when you decide to hit it back can I see it again.   There can be a lot of waiting involved.  The strokes follow one another until one person decides just to let the ball leave the court. Rallys are short or long depending.  Play is fast at the net, or slow from the baseline.  Just like conversations really.  Though the timing of the reply is up to the sender of a letter too, post is delivered only once a day.

Some of us pick up a whole library of information from a face-to-face meeting, and only somewhat less from a phone-call.  Others take the words at face value and add no import of their own.  Some of us sometimes write as we speak, our fingers moving as quickly as our words are formed, a stream of consciousness that rolls out our thoughts as if they came out of our mouths.  Our cadences, our vocabulary, our sentences constructions mimic our speech patterns so that our reader hears our words as they read.   Our style is identifiable even in our writing in unattributed.  At other times we hide behind the mask of formality, not even peeping out to say hello.  Letters can be like this too.

Emails can be a way of hiding, of delivering an unpleasant message, or making an excuse without the audience being able to use their instinctive lie detectors.  Letters have been used for centuries for just the same purpose.  Letters can crush you as much as they can fill you with joy.  Often the joy of a letter comes from holding something that has belonged to the sender, from ownership.  The writing paper, the choice of card, the handwriting, the colour of the ink – everything tells us something about the writer.  But type face, spacing, composition and the speed with which we reply all give us information in the email world too. 

Emails can create almost a level playing field between the person who applies a literal interpretation to every word he hears and the audience who reads between every single letter.  It is much more difficult to read between the lines of an email and to be left with no doubt about the writer’s intentions than it is to doubt a speaker’s intentions.  The email always asks for the benefit of the doubt.   The letter does this too.

Take someone with autistic traits, for example.  Receiving a message by email allows him, first, time to think about what the sender meant and what reply might be appropriate.  Secondly, it allows him an escape route.  If it appears from his reply that he misunderstood the email, then the medium can be blamed.  Just like a letter. He probably does not realise that those of us who are neuro-typical work doubly hard in the absence of body language and tone of voice to read emotions into emails, to pack the space between every word with meaning, especially when we understand that emails are interrupted conversations.

We know it is difficult and that we sometimes get it wrong and so, for the avoidance of doubt, we sometimes use emoticons.  They are crude, devoid of the nuances of emotion that would be possible in real life, but are a virtual second best.  That we use them is an added boon for those with autistic traits (who would almost never think to use them) because they make explicit what would otherwise be invisibly implicit.

Where emails stand in for handwritten letters they share the same possibilities.  Where they replace real conversations, they need help to add the vibrancy that our other senses add to the message we receive.  Our eyes, our ears, our nose.  E-moticons go some way to providing visual and auditory clues to back up the ordinary little words we read.

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Omar Khayam (1048-1122)