Old Advice for New Emails: 6 Ways to Avoid Sounding Like an Idiot
Today, speed and lack of training in written tact combine to make some of the worst communications ever. In our rush to make a point, we fail to follow some simple guidelines that would prevent a lot of misunderstanding. Take some advice from old letter writing masters, updated a little to meet the modern world.
1. Answer quickly.
The Earl of Chesterfield, a dad in the 1600’s, wrote his daughter an etiquette manual. In it he explained how to write letters to members of various levels of society, from a queen down to a servant. One important piece of advice which is still true today: if someone writes to you, write back quickly. He went on to explain this was most important if the person was of high rank. The mere ‘servants’ could wait awhile.
2. Never forget it’s public.
The Victorian Era represented the Golden Age of letter writing, and dozens of manuals survive with a plethora of precise rules for writing appropriate letters. One such bit of advice: “Do not conduct private correspondence on a postal card.” First, it was considered cheap…spend the money on the paper, ink, and wax stamp. Second, everyone could read it.
Emails aren’t secure. Whatever you write, make sure you would be okay if it was published on the front page of The New York Times. Otherwise, conduct your ‘private correspondence’ in a more private manner, like, um, maybe in person?
3. Keep in short.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. An ancient Latin document urges potential letter writers to ‘restrict’ their words, lest their letters stop being letters and turn into ‘treatises.’ Emails need to be friendly, but to the point. Don’t make someone dread seeing your name in their In box.
4. Avoid the all caps, emoticons, LOLs…
In another Victorian manual, the letter writer is advised to let his ‘choice of vocabulary and expressiveness of thought convey the depth of your feeling’ and never underline words. Keep that rule and add no caps for written yelling, emoticons, or crazy abbreviations. Communicate clearly, calmly, and precisely.
5. Never hit ‘Send’ when you’re angry.
Besides writing Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll also wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters. It was his favorite hobby. His guidelines included setting an angry response aside for a day. Then ‘read it as if you were the recipient’ in order to ‘take out the vinegar and pepper.’ If you are venting, don’t hit ‘send.’
This advice has appeared in letter writing instructions all through the centuries. Aristotle advised ancient Greeks to reread their writings, and medieval monks delineated one of the first letter writing templates called Ars Dictaminis, which included a proofreading step. Of course the Victorians advised it, because besides making the writer look uneducated, misspellings and grammatical mistakes implied that the writer did not care enough about the recipient or the subject to proof the note first. Take the advice of the generations before you: use spell-check.
Though in the future reading something like The Collected Emails of John W. Smith probably will never have the same appeal as a book of Victorian love letters, at least you can be sure that you haven’t had your email go viral as an example of the World’s Worst.