Some thoughts about writing letters.

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Surprisingly enough, we happen to have in our possession a tidy little collection of original books on etiquette. Most of them published during a period of intense social upheaval and rapid changes in communication and technology.

It’s an almost unimaginable period between say 1870 and 1970. The former, a world lit mostly by candles or some type of oil. The latter about to burst into a Saturday night fever.

A world where people walked, travelled on animals, and hadn’t yet imagined cars, to one that landed humans on the moon.

From a time when almost all important news arrived through the mail to one where we all shared the same stories at the same time around the world. Much of it within hours of it happening rather than days on a packet steamer or journey by sail.

The role of the letter changed drastically as well, and has continued to change to this day. With the advent of faster means of communication, each new technology arrived with its own new rules and was soon quickly replaced with something new. From the formalities of using telegram and telephone to dealing with the public nature of the fax and the acceptable way to use email each one came with new rules. And now that email has been replaced by SMS the change has been more rapid. Words have been reducd 2 txt & simple :) now require  emojipedia.

For this reason, we recognized that some advice may be welcome for those who don’t write letters every day. In fact we’re sure that even those who do will appreciate the comfort in finding out how the trickiest of situations were handled in the golden age of personal correspondence.

The rest of this post is taken from excerpts of Emily Post’s 1922 book on etiquette and her chapter on longer letters. Keeping in mind that the whole idea of etiquette is to avoid embarrassment and confusion, not just some stuffy old rules. It is based on the very civilized idea of thinking of others feelings first, because it’s not always all about you.

When you look, you’ll be surprised at how current Emily’s ideas still remain. And if you’re looking for help in writing your letters, this advice is some of the best that there is.

—————–

“THE ART of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a post-card. Since the events of the day are transmitted in newspapers with far greater accuracy, detail, and dispatch than they could be by the single effort of even Voltaire himself, the circulation of general news, which formed the chief reason for letters of the stage-coach and sailing-vessel days, has no part in the correspondence of to-day.

Taking the contents of an average mail bag as sorted in a United States post-office, about fifty per cent. is probably advertisement or appeal, forty per cent. business, and scarcely ten per cent. personal letters and invitations. Of course, love letters are probably as numerous as need be, though the long distance telephone must have lowered the average of these, too. Young girls write to each other, no doubt, much as they did in olden times, and letters between young girls and young men flourish to-day like unpulled weeds in a garden where weeds were formerly never allowed to grow.

It is the letter from the friend in this city to the friend in that, or from the traveling relative to the relative at home, that is gradually dwindling. As for the letter which younger relatives dutifully used to write—it has gone already with old-fashioned grace of speech and deportment.

Still, people do write letters in this day and there are some who possess the divinely flexible gift for a fresh turn of phrase, for delightful keenness of observation. It may be, too, that in other days the average writing was no better than the average of to-day. It is naturally the letters of those who had unusual gifts which have been preserved all these years, for the failures of a generation are made to die with it, and only its successes survive.

The difference though, between letter-writers of the past and of the present, is that in other days they all tried to write, and to express themselves the very best they knew how—to-day people don’t care a bit whether they write well or ill. Mental effort is one thing that the younger generation of the “smart world” seems to consider it unreasonable to ask—and just as it is the fashion to let their spines droop until they suggest nothing so much as Tenniel’s drawing in Alice in Wonderland of the caterpillar sitting on the toad-stool—so do they let their mental faculties relax, slump and atrophy.

To such as these, to whom effort is an insurmountable task, it might be just as well to say frankly: If you have a mind that is entirely bromidic, if you are lacking in humor, all power of observation, and facility for expression, you had best join the ever-growing class of people who frankly confess, “I can’t write letters to save my life!” and confine your literary efforts to picture post-cards with the engaging captions “X is my room,” or “Beautiful weather, wish you were here.”

It is not at all certain that your friends and family would not rather have frequent post-cards than occasional letters all too obviously displaying the meagerness of their messages in halting orthography.”     (Emily Post 1922)

Look for the upcoming posts that will include advice on “beginning and ending a letter”, “letters no one wants to read” and “the letter everyone wants to receive”  ..and more :)

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