I had a delightfully retro experience last week. I needed to contact someone to arrange to meet for lunch. I didn’t have their email address and, for various reasons, it was possible that they didn’t have one in active use. For completely different reasons, it was also inappropriate to phone. I therefore wrote a letter.
Apart from thank-you letters, I haven’t put pen to paper and hand-written a letter for years and I realised it used muscles that hadn’t been exercised in recent memory. The style was slightly different from the one I’d use in an email – not necessarily more formal, but less clichéd. I thought about the words more carefully and I knew I had to fill a certain amount of space. But I enjoyed it – the phrasing; the sign-off; wondering whether my first name alone would be recognised (and adding my surname, in brackets); the addressing of the envelope and applying a stamp; posting the letter and imagining it landing on the recipient’s doormat.
The shock came when I received a reply two days later, so much sooner than the replies I usually receive to emails and texts. Before going any further, I do appreciate that my friends might be dropping hints in not always responding by return, but I sense that people generally don’t reply to emails and texts quite as rapidly as we might imagine. We’re told that email makes us accessible and communications clamour for our attention 24/7, but that doesn’t always translate to dealing with them instantly.
And that got me thinking about a discussion a few weeks ago on phone etiquette and how that’s altering. Occasionally, I call friends out of the blue, but I generally text or email to ask if they’ll be around or fix a time to speak. Similarly, friends usually (but not invariably) do that before calling me. Where the phone was once the means of contacting someone immediately, a phone call is now seen by many as an intrusive demand for immediate attention. There’s a risk that it will be as inappropriate as someone appearing on your doorstep unannounced and uninvited. It seems to be a generational point, with older people looking blankly when this was explained and youngsters looking equally bewildered at why anyone would make a phone call in the first place.
And if you do call, don’t leave a voicemail message. I know a lot of people who don’t listen to them and more who regard them as time-thieves. For work these days, I send an email if I can’t reach someone by phone because that’s the convention now. Emails can be picked up more easily than voicemail messages and are quicker to deal with.
I’ll keep sending emails, texts and the like (as a precursor to phone calls, as well as communications in their own right), but I did enjoy writing that letter by hand. Judging from the speed of the response, there might be a few other people who do too.