First They Stole Love Letters, Now Email



I can wail for hours about what we lost when we stopped writing letters by hand, letting our hearts and minds flow through our bodies and onto heavy cream paper that could be kept, smoothed, wept on, reread until it crumbled with age. But the most I’ve put on paper to my husband in twenty years or so is a scribbled paragraph on each year’s soppy anniversary card, so I had best stop romanticizing.

Besides, now yet another form of communication is being yanked away.

Young people despise email, even at work. I picked up on this subtle fact when every source under thirty provided only a cell number—or demanded mine. Email is seen as too formal, too anxiety-producing, and one’s phone as more casual and friendly than one’s keyboard. But what if I want to give a little more context and nuance than a string of emojis can provide? Or I need to archive the chain for future self-defense or exposé?

Email lets us do what we urge angry toddlers to do: “Use your words.” An option that is increasingly unpopular. For years, I resisted giving my cell number to people I barely knew, but now, they give me no choice. A twenty-four-year-old videographer told The New York Times he will use “literally anything but email.”

Why such hostility? “Every time I get an email, it is like getting stabbed,” a student informed the reporter. “Another thing for me to do.” That, honey, is called life.

“Email is all your stressors in one area,” the videographer grumbled. He does not like seeing bills and work tasks in the same inbox: “I think that’s a really negative way to live your life.”

Or a realistic one. Is it not easier to do the work when you see the bills your salary will pay? He is right, though, about the sadistic spam filters that trap the wrong stuff, the clumsy contortions required to send large files, the anxiety of wondering if your boss has emailed you, the deluge of hundreds of emails a day that requires the discipline of a yogi to keep removing oneself from unwanted email lists.

Am I talking myself out of email? Not until I find something as generally useful. I was conditioned to it, points out Ian Bogost, director of film and media studies at Washington University. “People born after, say, 1990, never had to use email as a singular electronic comms channel. They had AIM, and then text messages, and then WhatsApp or whatever. Those of us who ‘had’ to use email became enculturated.” Thus irritable, when told to use Slack, Teams, and ten other platforms as well. “Narrowband, highly targeted, and more synchronous (but still asynchronous) communication methods are more tunable,” explains Bogost, “and therefore more appealing.”

Personally, I think we had something useful and blew it. People object to email because it is distracting, yet they insist on checking it constantly. And because it is so easy to simply ask a tiny question and bat the email back, we burden one another with too many messages, stalling instead of acting. Meanwhile, service professionals and retailers have decided that email is the new junk (excuse me, I mean direct) mail opportunity, as Bogost notes in a piece in The Atlantic. Every acquisition must be reviewed, and every time you get a cavity filled or your dog’s fecal smear shows no heartworm, you are supposed to rave on a feedback survey. As a result, we feel constantly besieged, batting away emails like badminton birdies.

Meanwhile, scammers have a field day, because cell phones have made all of us harder to reach by text or phone, but email addresses are easily got. The other day I felt two full minutes of jubilation because Netflix Originals wanted to adapt my murder mystery for streaming. Then I came to my senses. “Netflix Originals Worldwide” is not how Netflix styles itself, and the legalese requiring the author to communicate only with the “producers” was a dead giveaway. But for two shiny minutes, I actually thought that convoluted, sophomoric plot had been spotted as riveting.

How many emails have lured away somebody’s ego, heart, money, or identity? But any form of communication can be hijacked by evil. Or can do its own damage, like the paper from those old love letters decimating old-growth forests. I signed up for electronic delivery of financial statements and started receiving paper postcards telling me an electronic statement was ready for me to view. When, laughing, I begged them to stop mailing alerts to the alerts, they did so—then mailed me a letter to notify me that they had stopped.

Texts were perfect when they were urgent and brief. They filled a real need. In the workplace, sleeker messaging services may have been our way of begging one another for fewer words, but that benefit has eroded. Sure, we can tap back a goofy thumbs up, Ha ha or pink heart, condensing layers of emotion with no words at all. But humans are a chatty species, and the messages and texts are growing longer. I find myself thumbing long passages of concern or reassurance to friends and wishing I could just use a flippin’ keyboard, because my neck hurts and I have a crooked thumb. Speech to text is great if you are alone, ridiculous in someone else’s presence. And insomnia has jeopardized three friendships because I forgot myself and texted back late at night.

An email sneaks into somebody’s box without waking them. Polite, it does not demand an immediate response. It can be as short or as long as you like. It can be forwarded to anyone, and bits that might hurt their feelings can be excised as neatly as a film splice. Archived, it might become part of an interesting pattern over time.

A text is abbreviated, quick, crude. The form encourages quick jabs, snark, a wink, a cartoon. Early texting felt as primitive as a telegram, but we have smoothed out, prediction removing the need for all that cryptic, playful phonetic spelling. Instead, we type something, then see that our phone had a better idea and changed our word on us, so we type a new text below with just the correct word. Awkward.

It was too hard for us to sketch out words with our pen, too slow and cumbersome, all that friction of pen against paper. Typewriters bowdlerized (now there is a word nobody ever texts) the nineteenth-century epistolary form, and email zapped away love letters. With every shift, we move toward compression, speed, fewer words, and less nuance. Why? So we can say as little as possible as quickly and often as possible?

I like texting. It keeps me in touch more frequently, makes me laugh more often, simplifies getting together, eliminates possible confusion or uncertainty. But often, I notice, the content recounts something that has happened or zaps a symbol of a response; seldom is there much depth of thought or feeling.

That sort of thing goes in the letters we no longer write.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.