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 rec.food.madeleines. 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. -- MMC page: http://www-ccs.cs.umass.edu/mmc; (un)subs.: firstname.lastname@example.org.