Written Communication: A Humane Art

Pamela Chan, BCFamily.ca

A few years ago a Vancouver-based professor shared a story about his experience sending an E-mail to a local city councilor. He received a “cut and paste” reply to an E-mail that was grounded in a substantial amount of research and effort. The reply he received by E-mail was unrelated to the content of the original message. It seems that just about anyone can get the brush off these days. Even city councilors lack the professional experience and sophistication required to handle correspondence properly.

I’ve experienced many different modes of communication over the years as I wrote letters long hand; took typing classes at age 10 and typed letters; and, was an early adapter of E-mail, VOIP and social networking.  While spending most of my formative years overseas, I lived two days travel from members of my extended family. Due to the high cost of telephone calls, my only other option for communication was letter writing. I used fine blue velum paper, wrote long letters and drew embellishments in the borders. I sat by the swimming pool in the hot sun, while my parents were at work, and put all of my efforts into writing the best letters I could possibly write. My mother found a copy of one of the letters written by my sibling years later and gave us copies. As for my letters, the recipients threw them out years ago. Sadly I have no records from my youth of practicing this dying art form.

A few years ago my friend and I exchanged bundles of letters that we had sent each other as teenagers and young adults. We used to send long letters to each other. It was not unusual for either of us to write a 20 page letter! I also sent some of these old letters back to other friends. I included a note saying that they served as a type of diary of that person’s early years. In the post-letter writing era, I felt that they would be fascinating artifacts for the original authors to receive.

Nowadays there may be the perception that it is easy to bang out an E-mail or message on a social media site.  People assume that letter writing is simply too time consuming. No doubt the aforementioned councilor did not consider that the academic put a lot of time into writing his E-mail. There are so many people living in this world and electronic forms of communication (including brief tweets and texts) are easily accessible. Why should one reply to every message? It is true that messages get pushed to the bottom of our inbox. We may be more likely to take note of a letter arriving at our doorstop because we rarely receive communiques in the mail. My advice to this academic would be to send all important correspondence by regular mail or express post.  The one exception would be a resume.

In our professional lives we will reply to most messages that require a response.  There is a certain degree of accountability in organizations. If one repeatedly receives and ignores requests for information or assistance, eventually a formal complaint will be levied.

In our personal lives we may not feel compelled to be as diligent. We can receive a message, read the content and never reply. Or we may reply months or even years later. Or we may never reply, unless the person writes again. Sometimes a reply may be in the form of a “cut and paste” job, much like the E-mail the councilor sent to the academic. We may send a form letter, electronically, to update our close friends on our whereabouts and activities. We may feel that if we do this a few times a year, we will be in good standing with our friends.

What about the message, card or rare letter that contains a question? How are you? How is your job going? How is your family these days? Your nephews? Your parents? When will you visit me? Do you have an address for Joe? Do you know anything about pilates? Sometimes the answers come quickly and the turnaround time for a replies are short.  If we’re keen on communicating we may add new content. We may even include a salutation and closing. Sometimes, though, we don’t really feel like replying. Life hasn’t been great. We hate our jobs. Our romantic lives have taken a turn and gone south. Why should we have to admit this to a friend who appears to be having a rosy time of it?

Inaction is a form of action. Our silence in response to incoming communiqués or a non-personalized or poorly thought out response are clear indications of the esteem in which we hold the other person.

Virginia Woolf called letter writing “the humane art, which owes its origins to the love of friends”, and devoted a good deal of emotional energy to using it to maintain her friendships. (Lisa Jardine,  Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London)

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