E-mail, Snail Mail, and the Golden Age of Letters

When I wrote about psychological insights into e-mail in the New York Times and on this blog, a tide of responses came washing through which have refined my own thinking. My appreciation goes to all those who wrote in.

First, let me confess to a fundamental flaw: while I made a sharp distinction between communication face-to-face or by phone, on the one hand, and e-mail on the other, I failed to compare e-mail and old-fashioned letters.

As one reader noted, “Writing is always better with review and revision.” That careful reconsideration was a far more common practice back in the more leisurely day when writing a letter could take several drafts before the sender was satisfied. Rare is the e-mail that gets re-written, polished and sanded – and only then, sent.

I suspect one culprit is the lure of the “Send” button; this may well prime the brain’s premotor cortex to be a bit hair-trigger, shooting the e-mail across the Internet well before second thoughts have time to alter the message. This impulsivity, when driven by the amygdala (that is, when we feel peeved and the like), has been called the “online disinhibition effect,” or, more commonly, flaming.

Then there’s the accelerated pace of life. E-mail seems the perfect medium for a hectic day: get that thought down and shoot it out. None of this encourages a thoughtful re-read or revision.

Letter-writing for centuries was a high literary form; people put great thought into their words, and labored over style. They were more likely to make sure a letter was worth sending before posting it. Consider the numerous volumes of “Collected Letters of…”, from Einstein to Saint Theresa. This genre makes great reading; some are movingly heartfelt, others elegantly argued essays.

There are no such volumes of collected e-mails. I doubt there ever will be.

One software architect – who actually wrote one of the first e-mail programs – bemoaned the Blackberry, which reduces the already truncated information value of an email; it’s not just the emotional nuances that go missing, but a good deal of the manifest content. The main reason: Blackberries and their ilk encourage people to go over their email while in the midst of something else, like a meeting. So email ends up scanned, not read.

On the other hand, a healthy school of thought endorses emoticons like these🙂 🙁 along with ellipses…and exclamation points! These visual aids definitely add a degree of nuance and a bit of feeling to the written page (and may partly capture some of the emotive capacity of handwriting). I see them as better than nothing, but nowhere near as rich as a phone call or face-to-face encounter.

To be sure, the e-mail future may incorporate more Skype calls with webcams, to bring the richness of voice and face to Internet communication. That was a solution a manger for a global Korean firm found when worldwide email communications were not working well. As he notes with the webcams, “You can see each other in their offices, and get a real sense of being there. The phone calls take longer, are more relaxed, allow for a broader discussion and importantly, make everyone feel more connected.”

2 thoughts on “E-mail, Snail Mail, and the Golden Age of Letters

  1. I just thought of something. I suspect people usually treat email and instant messaging as a substitue to face-to-face communication. It feels like face-to-face too, because of instant replies and so on. That cannot be said for letters. You are also right, I feel, about the destractions and the multi-tasking that people engage in nowadays when emailing, compared to writing letters in the past. Letters, as you said, were more considered, and the writer has to have some skills in writing to evoke emotions in the reader. That’s a deliberate attempt – otherwise it would be a boring read. Face-to-face flows naturally, there are no drafts, and the skill set is completely different.

    It’s easy for people to misunderstand each other when writing. For example, there’s only one difference between “i’m not in love with you” and “i’m in love with you”. Three letters: that’s the only difference. Yet the difference in meaning is HUGE :-s. That’s pretty worriying. What would the other person think if you miss out those three important letters by mistake – especially if the stakes are high? You cannot make the same mistake face-to-face – not easily anyway. Even if you did, it’s not as permenant. When instant messaging, there’s NO WAY TO TELL what the other person in thinking or feeling. You’re gonna have to use your imagintation and take their word for it.

    It’s worse if you never met them before face-to-face.

    Best regards


  2. I’m sure those are the reasons for the difference between e-mail and letters. But the Blackberry doesn’t deserve all the blame for the hasty, cursory reading of e-mail. Even the regular computer is no match for the hectic pace of life today.

    But the $64 question remains: Why have educated people, who supposedly have a sense of history, forgotten that there ever was such a thing as the letter. Because it isn’t just you, Dr. Goleman. This past April, Robert Wright wrote in the New York Times that first there was in-person conversation, then there was the telephone, and now there’s e-mail. You’d think that whoever invented e-mail invented writing as well.

    So again I ask: What is it about the electronic age that has caused so many of us to lose our memories?

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