In Which Our Heroine Ponders The Etiquette Of Letters–Perhaps Too Extensively
As I prepared for my Pen Pal Assignment from the LWA, I decided that it would behoove me to study the proper way to write letters. I would hate to unintentionally offend new friends, especially on first acquaintance. As the old saying goes, one only has one chance to make a good impression.
To that end, I have referred to Emily Post, that Empress of Etiquette, for she wrote her book during a time when long, chatty letters were still being written–or so I thought.
Imagine my surprise when I read the following from Chapter 28 of Emily’s Etiquette, “Longer Letters”:
The art of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a postcard. Since the events of the day are transmitted in newspapers with far greater accuracy, detail, and dispatch than they could be by the single effort of even Voltaire himself, the circulation of the general news, which formed the chief reason for letters of the stage-coach and sailing-vessel days, has no part in the correspondence of to-day.
Taking the contents of an average mail bag as sorted in a United States post-office, about fifty per cent. is probably advertisement or appeal, forty per cent. business, and scarcely ten per cent. personal letters and invitations. Of course, love letters are probably as numerous as need be, though the long-distance telephone must have lowered the average of these, too. Young girls write to each other, no doubt, much as they did in olden times, and letters between young girls and young men flourish today like unpulled weeds in a garden where weeds were formerly never allowed to grow.
It is the letter from the friend in this city to the friend in that, or from the traveling friend to the relative at home, that is gradually dwindling. As for the letter which younger relatives dutifully used to write–it has gone already with old-fashioned grace of speech and deportment.
In 1922 New York, Emily Post was already mourning the decline of the Posted Letter. (Her dig at the Younger Generation and Their Decline is one of many and can be set aside for the moment.) Like many of us here in 2013, she felt a nostalgia for the joys of the written word, winging its way from far-away parts to bring news, well-wishes, and loving thoughts from one who is temporarily out of sight, but never out of mind.
Luckily, Emily goes on to say that “…people do write letters in this day and there are some who possess the divinely flexible gift for a fresh turn of phrase, for delightful keenness of observation.” There is hope, it seems, for the Posted Letter, even among the despised Younger Generation.
In Chapter 27, “Notes and Shorter Letters,” and the aforementioned Chapter 28, “Longer Letters,” Emily Post indicates, in the minutest detail, the proper way to go about writing different sorts of letters. She emphasizes things like legibility, spelling, and even appropriate stationery–chosen not just for its suitability to the writer’s societal position and the occasion for writing, but also to the writer’s individual handwriting and style. A letter must not only be coherent and clever, but also aesthetically pleasing.
Once one cuts through all the specifics, however, the etiquette of letter writing seems to boil down to the following: When writing a letter, do your best to display the care and affection you feel for the recipient in every aspect of your efforts, from your choice of writing paper to your penmanship and spelling to the way you address and seal the envelope. Your letter is a sign of your regard, and your respect for your recipient should show in every fold of paper and dash of ink.
Fashions of both speech and writing change, but etiquette is still the act of showing respect to one’s fellow human beings. I hope that my future pen pals, as well as my friends and relations, see the esteem in which I hold them in the letters that I write.