As I increasingly ponder the beauty and wonder of email, such musings often transpose into thoughts on personal correspondence. Email is used for everything from transactional receipts for e-commerce purchases, newsletters, marketing salvos, password resets, and political donation solicitations. Certainly those amazing abilities pale in comparison to our collective use of email for personal and business correspondence.
If we’re being honest, we aren’t particularly excited to get emails from colleagues, but let’s also admit that email powers like that allow entire companies to power over one-third of the websites with a staff of 400+ scattered around the globe.
Still, it’s the personal correspondence by email that tickles our fancy and causes us to worry about losing our email archives. We won’t miss the password reset emails or even the e-commerce receipts, but emails from and to our friends and families – and even relative strangers on the internet – are what has the most value for us.
Email has largely replaced the written and mailed letter. We all love an actual letter from someone we care about. But it’s rare to get them, even at this time of year when families celebrate holidays and reach out to old friends.
For me, as like many of you, not only would it cost a small fortune to mail some of my friends (some are international), but some are difficult to mail, if at all. Some move with rapid frequency. Some don’t have access to reliable mail delivery. Some letters would take too long to arrive.
What’s additionally beautiful about email is how quickly a relationship can blossom by merely the written word, zipped across the internet. I’ve received nice emails at Just Use Email and have enjoyed some back and forth with people, all because of our shared interact and passion about email.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes the following:
Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” … It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision – it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis
In our digital age, the emphasis is on that last sentence, “And instantly”, for while such in-person connection is amazing, the world of email opens doors to humanity’s vastness. An idiosyncratic belief, found perhaps nowhere in your community, can be the foundation of a lifelong friendship when it’s exposed to the world. Reddit and similar forums provide this, but the best of those commonalities find their way off those platforms and onto email, at least to start.
As I think about email as a tool for personal correspondence, I think of its inherit friction. The same friction others complain about is the force that elevates the worthiness of the written word when sent by email, similar to the higher value of a mailed letter.
When we write an email, we are deliberate. We choose words more carefully. We compose paragraphs. We collect our own thoughts, perhaps forming and editing them as we type, and we then entice our reader to share our elations, trials, challenges, and minor and major successes. We entice them with our own beliefs, we share our advice, we give the gift of us through the written word.
Because of the superpowers of email, we feel confident it will reach its recipient, unmarred, fully intact, and available to them at their leisure, yet delivered instantly. Even if they’re sick, on vacation, have moved counties or countries, or several years have elapsed since we last wrote to them, we have assurance that email will be up to the task with aplomb.
Like writing a paper, a blog post, or a book, we write with deliberation, energy, effort, and determination. Yet unlike other mediums, email usually is just to one or a few persons. It’s personal; it’s meant to touch one person. Such email correspondence is not usually meant for large audiences.
What do you do when you get such an email, rife with love, affection, friendship, or warmth? Do you more closely salivate over each sentence, far more than you would a text message or a social media post? Do you think upon it for several days before beginning a reply? How much time elapses before a reply takes too long, before the reply is apologetic and stale? Do you feel guilty if you don’t reply with equal gusto?
In other words, are you deliberate to those who are deliberate to you? Do you make space and time to write emails? Do you try to reply on your phone? Or do you have a proper workstation that allows fast composing of emails such that you send them off regularly?
In a sense, email is not only something used in a good relationship; it is a good relationship itself. It is deliberate, thoughtful, caring, requires effort, some may save it even requires love or a form of love, and email, rightly done, is almost always appreciated, like a hug.
Call me sentimental on this point. When I recently learned that President John Adams exchanged over 1,000 letters with his wife Abigail, only half of which have ever been published, I found that stunning. She also wrote back, not considering his letters to be spam or to be too voluminous.
Would we come even close to this today? Even over a 40-year relationship, that’s an average of two letters a month – to the same person. No, we are too busy consuming mass media, mass entertainment, publishing updates on social media for 300+ so-called friends. We’ve no time to dedicate 20 minutes twice a month to just one person, even a romantic interest, and maintain that year after year.
It’s worth considering, at this time of year, how we spend our time, not just our in-person visits, but how we will spend our digital and keyboard time this coming new year.
I’m no saint, but it strikes me that time spent deliberately writing email is, like friendship and deliberation in relationships, is time that has deep value for both sender and recipient.