Date: Mon, 18 Nov 1996 09:30:02 -0500 (EST)

Greetings.  Don't forget Coffee and Bagels and Donuts at the lounge, at 10!

One of Geoff Nunberg's pieces for WHYY's 'Fresh Air' (October 1996)

One of the curious things about all these media that are about to sweep us
into the next century is how vividly they recall the last one. A hundred
years ago, after all, people thought nothing of writing a dozen letters a
day. Cities like Paris and London had as many as five daily mail deliveries,
and assiduous correspondents could exchange several letters before evening.

It was an age that took the conventions of correspondence seriously. A couple
of years ago at a bookstall in Paris I picked up a little manual of letter-
writing that was published in 1892. It gives models for writing letters of
introduction, invitation, recommendation, condolence, and congratulation,
each with its singular formulas and turns of phrase. It tells you how to
write a letter asking a countess to intervene on your behalf with the civil
service examiners, how to tell your nephew that you cannot pay his gambling
debts, or how to reproach a friend for not visiting you in your sickbed --
that one starts, "Boast no more that you know what friendship is, sir!" In
its miniature way it gives as thorough a picture of nineteenth-century
bourgeois life as you can get from reading Maupassant or Proust. And in fact
the earliest novels emerged in the eighteenth century out of books of letters
very much like this one.

Actually the French haven't wholly abandoned these customs, maybe because the
telephone didn't become a universal fixture in French homes until well after
the war. Even now French schoolchildren are drilled in the conventions of
writing personal letters. So when email began to catch on in France a lot of
people just treated it as just another kind of letter.  When I was living
there a couple of years ago I used to get messages that ended with epistolary
flourishes like "Dear colleague, please to accept my most distinguished
sentiments." I felt obliged to respond in kind, and in fact I built some of
the formulas from that letter-writing guide into keyboard macros, so I could
just hit control-H and the machine would enter a sentence like,"I dare to
hope that you will do me the courtesy of a reply."

But we Americans lost the habit of writing personal letters early in the
century, and when email came in we were pretty much at a loss where to
start. As enthusiasts never tire of pointing out, it's a medium that seems to
level all distinctions, geographical and social. Boss and employee, intimate
friends and utter strangers, all just a few keystrokes away from one
another. Drop a medium like that in the midst of a people with no history of
letter-writing, and it's no wonder there will be so many harrowing tales of
miscommunication and misunderstanding.

So it's not surprising that people have had to come up with rules of style
and etiquette that are as intricate as anything you can find in those
nineteenth-century handbooks. There are conventions for closing: when do you
write your name, when do you put nothing at all, when do you end with a
breezy valediction like "cheers"? There are rules for cc'ing other
correspondents, rules for forwarding messages, and rules for when to quote
your correspondent's message back at him. There are all those acronyms that
email adepts employ -- 'BRB' for 'be right back'; 'IHOP' for "in my humble
opinion" -- just like the opaque codes that nineteenth century letter-writers
used to sort out the initiates from the parvenus.  And above all there's the
characteristic email voice, with its studied informality.  You labor for half
an hour over a four-line message to give it just the right offhand note.

Of course it's all a little ragged, and not everybody has mastered the
niceties. But then it was that way a hundred years ago, too, which is why
there was a steady market for handbooks like the one I picked up at that
bookstall. You have to wonder what a writer like Proust would have made of it
all. I'm not going to delude myself that he would have spent his evenings
hunched over his Powerbook logged in to For one thing,
it's hard to imagine that he could have ever gotten used to receiving
messages from utter strangers that began with "Hi, Marcel."  Still, I like to
think he would have envied us some of the features of our medium, like the
"blind cc" line that lets you send a copy of your correspondence to a third
party without alerting the person you're writing to. It's a functionality
that's pregnant with dramatic possibilities. And I'm sure he would have been
intrigued by the expanded opportunities for gaffes and faux pas. With a
single email letter, after all, you can make yourself look foolish not just
to the countess you happen to be writing to, but to 200 other people on the
same mailing list. Now that's democracy.

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