Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Reviving a lost art

I went to the post office yesterday and asked for a roll of stamps. The clerk gave me a funny look and said, "A roll?" I confirmed my order and she ventured into a back room to fetch me a roll of stamps from the closet. "You don't sell many rolls?" I asked. "No," she said, "You know . . . the internet."

People don't send enough mail to make a roll of stamps worth buying any more. So sad.

My first resolution in the area of etiquette is to write more social correspondence. Christmas is a great time to get excited about this idea because we've received lots of gifts and been hosted at lots of houses so I started with thank-you notes. I then went through our backlog of Christmas cards that the post office finally delivered and ventured to write brief notes to people who still didn't have our new address. Then I opened a card from an old friend who has, miraculously, kept me on her Christmas mailing list and saw that she'd had a new baby. Last year I would have thought, "How nice!" This year I wrote her a congratulations note and updated her about our lives.

I'm hoping to move on to real letters next but, honestly, I'm afraid that people will think I'm weird. Maybe I should just be upfront and tell people that I'm trying to revive the lost art of letter-writing. I'm afraid, though, of setting my sights too high. I barely have time to eke out a typed blog entry most days.

Then again, the kids don't seem to clamor for my attention quite so much when I'm sitting at the table with pen and paper as when I'm standing at the desk, staring at a screen. There is just something humanizing about paper. Eric just got his first issue of a newspaper subscription this morning and was reflecting this evening how much nicer it was to start his day with a paper rather than an online news briefing. My father-in-law got the new Amazon electronic book reader for Christmas. It's an impressive little gadget but I just don't see myself giving up the satisfying heft of a good book, the quick flipping back to check a detail or re-read a favorite passage. And what would we do with all the extra square footage in our apartment?

It's funny how much I look forward to the mail each day. Nothing ever really comes. Even our junk mail is so scant that some days we don't even get mail. I remember my mom looking forward to the mail each day, too. Why is it? I think I'm always harboring a completely unreasonable hope that someone will have sent me a letter.

Eric and I began our courtship the day before I moved from Boston to Washington. Prior to that day we had met, in person, only four times. We had exchanged letters weekly for an entire summer and we continued to write to each other--two or three times each week--for four months. We've had the good fortune since then never to have been separated long enough to need to write letters but I so treasure the shoebox of letters I have from him.

Besides the romance of letters, I'm starting to see how using the postal service to correspond is generally more civilizing. So often I write an e-mail and get annoyed when there is not an immediate reply. I know the message has arrived the moment I click "Send." E-mail and telephone bumps into someone's day and demands a quick response. Letters arrive at a set time each day and invite consideration and respect. So why do I feel like I'm really imposing on people if I write a letter? Part of the reason Eric and I began our relationship with letters is that a real, hand-written letter is a gift. We wanted to think enough of the other to take the time to create these gifts on a regular basis.

Well, I'm not going anywhere in particular with this at the moment. I mostly want to get the conversation going, if only with myself, about etiquette. Etiquette (much of which involves written correspondence) is commonly seen as something imposed by the rich or snobby on the poor and/or ignorant. My thesis this year is that etiquette is none of these things but is, in fact, a fundamental part of human relations and is abandoned at our peril. I've been reading Miss Manners' book lately and I'm struck with her notion that most failing marriages need help from someone like her rather than a psychologist. An interesting argument. At the very least, I think we have a responsibility to know the rules before we break them.


Robyn said...

Hey Q,

I'm all for it! You might not know this, but I love sending 'letters' too, though what I actually send is cards. I used to be frustrated with cards because there was not space like in a letter to really get going with something. I don't really feel like that anymore since it is not my primary communication with anyone. Usually I am searching for something to say that they do not already know. Also, with cards it is tempting to just sign your name and be done with it. Doesn't the card just say it all? So I try to actually write something...of substance. Though this usually pushes back my card sending. It means I need to take the time to think of something of substance. And that sometimes puts me off from even starting. For example, I didn't send my thank you's until yesterday...even though I had the cards ready last wednesday.

I am curious at your claim that etiquette is mostly about written correspondence. Maybe I don't know the precise definition of etiquette. Maybe I lumping manners and etiquette together. Are they different (like putting your napkin in your lap)?

Anyways, this is interesting, yo.

Susan said...

You are right that there are lots of things included in etiquette like table manners and why not to set up a gift registry. But it does seem like the death of thank-you notes is quite emblematic of a larger etiquette problem. According to Miss Manners--my current guru--this is just basic civilization. But most people nowadays seem surprised when I send a thank-you note (and I'm pretty inconsistent about it). So many social situations are most properly done via a written note or letter.

Another big theme in Miss Manners (and I do hope to read other etiquette sources this year) is that new technology does not change the basic principles of etiquette. There is a common perception that since we have cell phones now it is perfectly fine to be available to callers at all times--even in line at the grocery store or out to eat with a friend. Same with e-mail--if a person can receive it instantly and reply instantly then we should expect an instant reply without taking any time for thoughtfulness or consideration with wording, expectations, etc.

I don't know if I want this to have much practical bearing on my life or not. Is it really nicer for me to send you a hand written note asking you to visit which seems to ask you to spare one of your nice cards and a good deal more of your time responding thereby dragging out our planning over the course of week or two by the time we get our husbands schedules straight? Isn't it more respectful of you and your time to say, "Hey, Robyn, when are you going to get yourself down to DC?" I dont' know. Maybe the trick is to use e-mail which is free and convenient the same way I would use mail: write a carefully worded, thoughtful invitation, and give you a few days to make your own plans and get back to me. Maybe if I could only access e-mail once a day--just like the mail--this would already be my expectation.

Thanks for talking to me about this Robyn!

Robyn said...

My grandmother and I write letters to arrange visits. I love it. She even mailed me directions to her home (instead of assuming I would look it up on MapQuest...though I don't think she knows what mapquest is). When I send my grandmother a thank you note, she often writes me back, which I love, so I write her back. I guess it would be grandma that I mostly communicate with through the mail.

I love thank you notes. My sister sent me a thank you packet with a letter from each of her kids (including Avery, who is 1) and a letter from her. It was so fun to open!

And I really should make myself a pack of stationary so that if you did write with "get to D.C. soon!" I could easily write back without having to craft a special "I will visit you in D.C. card."

My mother addresses Andrew's mail "Master Andrew Rice". Did you know about the Master thing? And when I was growing up she would have me address married women as Mrs. David Rice, divorced women: Mrs. Robyn Rice, widowed women: Mrs. D.E. Rice and she had a husband/wife friend set that were both doctors. That was Dr. and Dr. David Rice. She knows all the tricks. Maybe she could be your next guru! You could interview her!

Susan said...

I think that last one is supposed to be The Doctors David Rice.

Also, apparently it is a bit gauche to use "Dr." socially unless you are a medical doctor, so we don't get to turn into Dr. and Mrs. this spring.

Robyn said...

Really?!?!? Could it be my mom was wrong this whole time? I'm calling her now.

Spinneretta said...

I didn't know you COULD buy a roll.
I think I will (we have several letters almost ready to be mailed!)

Soutenus said...

I have, sadly, given up letter writing. I used to love sitting with a cup of tea and penning notes to friends miles away. At 40-whatever cents per stamp - it just became too extravagant. I can send an email for free. (I do not even pay for Internet access because it comes with my job)

I spend more time talking with friends on the phone or via IM these days. I find I am easily keeping up with
many more folks than pre-Internet days. We have a private family blog to keep our close family/friends updated. The communication through that blog is great -- it reminds me of the days my Aunt (who worked for the phone company) would put us all together on a conference call. The banter is exciting and up to date!

I DO hand write thank yous but I also hand deliver them. It seems that any Thank You I write goes to someone I see frequently.

I miss letters but money is tight and the 5 dollars a month I would easily spend keeping up with friends is needed elsewhere We have to use more frugal ways to keep in touch. I know some people may laugh at 5.oo a month - but that is 2 gallons of gas or 70 some miles of driving that has to be done for work.

Robyn said...

Q, how much was that roll of stamps?

momofboys said...

I feel as you do. I think letter writing is more personal, refined, thoughtful and reminiscent of a time past. I love writing letters, as a child I had pen pals, now I only get to write thank you notes, and those never receive an answer. I have a story: About half a year ago a fellow homeschooling mom wrote me a letter (she had moved a state away) and even though it was just a hi and how are you with a brief update written on wide-ruled notebook paper, I was hopeful. I got out my nice stationery and wrote her back thinking I had found a kindred spirit. To her defense, she is busy with many little ones, but I never received a response. I think she is just too busy. It's all moms can do to zip off an email, or not write at all, than to sit thoughtfully with pen in hand. I tease my husband that if I were a wife in the 'good old days' I would manage the servants and spend a good amount of my time 'catching up on my correspondence' with a cup of tea in hand. Oh well.