Saturday, 18 February 2012

The etiquette of email

In these days of email, texts and instant messaging, I am not alone, I feel sure, in mourning the demise of the old fashioned hand written letter. Exchanges of letters capture nuances of shared thoughts and feelings to which their electronic replacements simply cannot do justice.  Here is an example I recently came across in recently discovered old school notes from back when I was a boarder at Sevenoaks School in Kent:

In July 1940, with Britain at war, the English writer Virginia Woolf published a biography of the artist Roger Fry, champion of post-impressionism and a leading member of the Bloomsbury Group (a group of writers, intellectuals and philosophers who held informal discussions in Bloomsbury in the 20th century). The timing could hardly have been any worse. Fry's reputation was that of an ivory tower liberal, who believed that art inhabited a self contained, formal space, remote from the hostile world.  As France fell to Hitler's troops, and German planes pounded the south coast of England with increasingly powerful air raids, such artistic idealism seemed at best out of touch, and at worst, completely irrelevant. 

Most of Woolf's friends were politely positive about the book.  But in early August 1940 she received a letter from Ben Nicholson, the 26 year old art critic son of her close friend, Vita Sackville-West.  Nicholson was, at the time, serving in the British army in Kent, defending the country in the World War II from the German bombers. Nicholson attacked the adulatory tone of Woolf's biography and accused Fry of failing to engage with the realities of the war time years:
I am so struck by the fool's paradise in which he (Fry) and his friends lived. He shut himself out from all disagreeable actualities and allowed the spirit of Nazism to grow without taking any steps to check it.
Woolf's answering letter did not mince words:
Lord! Roger? Shut himself out from disagreeable activities, did he? What can you mean? Didn't he spend half his life travelling around England with masses of people who'd never looked at a picture and making them see what he saw, and wasn't that the best of way of checking Nazism?!
Stunned by Woolf's condescending tone, and unpersuaded by her argument, Nicholson wrote again, criticising Fry and the Bloomsbury Group in yet stronger terms.  This time, Woolf took his comments personally and drafted a lengthy reply in which she turned Nicholson's attack on Fry and herself back on him - Nicholson's own chosen career of art critic was hardly more engaged:
I suppose I'm being obtuse, but I cannot find your answer in your letter - how it is that you are going to change the attitudes of the masses by remaining an art critic!
Reading over her letter, Woolf thought better of her stern tone, and did not send the letter. Instead she re-wrote it in more measured terms, moderating her sharp remarks with an opening apology:
I think it's extraordinarily nice of you to write to me. I hope I didn't annoy you by what I said. It's very difficult when one writes letters in a hurry (as I always do) not to make them sound abrupt.
It is this second version of the letter that Woolf despatched, and which evidently satisfied its recipient, who called a truce on their differing views of Fry's influence and reputation.

Two things strike me from this exchange. The first is the simple good manners that both correspondents exercise in the way they address one another, in spite of the real, keenly felt differences of opinion. The second is the strikingly different outcome arrived at because Virginia Woolf restrained herself from despatching her first draft reply and carefully modified it so as not to hurt the feelings of the young man, a family friend, very much younger and less experienced than herself.

I have presented this exchange for a purpose.  In it, Woolf, using established letter writing conventions, takes advantage of the time lapses between exchanges, to recuperate, clarify and recast the argument. In doing so, she manages to take control of the argument. 

How unlike the rapid firing off and counter-fire of email messages today, in which many of us find ourselves engaged nowadays! In my profession (the law), the written word is paramount.  I have not had a client who writes to me with "Dear Paras" or "Yours sincerely".  In fact, there is just one client (who himself is old enough to remember the Second World War) who sticks to traditional letter writing conventions in his emails to me.  

Yet, if I try to answer a brashly written email from my client, the reply that follows will be couched in very different terms. It will be prefixed by the kind of placatory remark Woolf used in responding to Nicholson: "I did not mean to imply criticism" or "I hope you did not think me rude".  It is as if between the first and second response, I have become a person, a natural recipient of the communication, rather than an impersonal postbox - so, the courtesy and simple good manners of more old-fashioned letter form are restored to our correspondence.

The most dramatic feature of electronic communication is surely its propensity to tempt us into dashing off a response in haste, that we repent later at leisure.  As the emails ping in to our inbox, we answer them helter-skelter and breathlessly, without understanding the nuances in our tone.  As a consequence, misunderstandings often arise.

Today's electronic forms of communication may lack emotional depth, but they do allow us to connect more speedily and efficiently than "snail mail".  Still when we take advantage of them, we ought to always heed Woolf's warning - never to write carelessly, and if we can at least count to 10 and read over what we have written before we press "Send".





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