When I began working in the Congress in 1990, part of my job—and this was a task that always fell to the last person in the door—was to manage my Senator’s mailroom. For about an hour every morning, I opened constituent mail, date-stamped each letter, and sorted them into issue-related piles to ensure they were routed to the correct staffer for a draft response. The draft response would then be approved by the Legislative Director—or, on particularly touchy issues, the Senator himself—then would be routed back through the system, where it would be logged into the databank, printed, signed, and mailed back to the constituent. In a given week, our office received about 2,500 letters, but even with that volume, when the system worked correctly—as it did 95 percent of the time—constituents received a response within about two weeks of their letter being received. A good turnaround time.
Today, I work in the office of a county official where we receive about a 500 e-mails a week from constituents. As a staff, we sort through the e-mails, draft and vet responses with each other, and send an e-mail back. We try to respond within a week. That’s also a good turnaround, given both the volume of e-mail and our staff size (counting our Councilmember, there are five of us). But any gap of about three days between receiving the constituent e-mail and a response from us often results in an angry follow-up e-mail, usually accusing the Councilmember of being non-responsive or, better yet, of “ignoring” their e-mail.
I like e-mail. I like dashing off a line or two to a friend or colleague, punching “Send,” and knowing that even just that line or two we’re sharing means we’re staying in touch. But e-mail also makes us careless. In the old days, you could scribble out a hotheaded note (or a response to someone else’s hotheaded note), and by the time you got done writing it, typing it, printing it (or whatever), then stuck it in an envelope and wrote the address . . . well, by the time you found a stamp, you’d probably come to your senses and realized that sending your remarks was going to be a mistake. The sheer amount of time and effort required to send a “snail mail” was, in a sense, your first and best editor.
Nowadays, I regularly see e-mails—both from constituents and government officials—that make my eyes bug and my mouth hang open in disbelief. Forget basic spelling and grammar—when anger is in play, those all go out the window—what’s astounding is the complete lack of civility. There’s name-calling, impugning of reputations, wild accusations . . . anything goes. And the responses to such missives can be just as terrible. Many times, it’s clear a response hasn’t been vetted or approved by anyone. (We always keep in mind a “front page” policy, in which we ask How would you feel if your response was printed on the front page of the newspaper?) E-mail, quite simply, has no filter. It’s ready, fire, aim.
While the ability to write and fire off an e-mail has certainly brought us all more in touch than ever, I think it’s also removed some civility from both public and private discourse. There’s something to be said for sitting down and writing out a letter—even if it’s on your computer and printed out—and sticking it in the mail. I like getting mail. I like that someone has taken the time to write a note, address an envelope, stamp it, and send it. It means a lot.
Maybe it’s just me, though. I love writing notes. I have beautiful correspondence cards with lined envelopes with my address already printed on the envelope flap. I write notes in fountain pen—and I have two boxes of different colored inks to play with—and I seal my envelopes with wax and press my initial into it before it cools. It feels ancient and interesting and elegant. It feels right.
But I’m even the kind who doesn’t keep my schedule electronically. I still carry a calendar with me, and I write my appointments and other details in it, all the way down to confirmation numbers and directions. I was on the phone scheduling some meetings with my editor one afternoon, and joked that I was so determined to make a certain meeting that I was writing it in my appointment book “in ink!”
“An appointment book?” she laughed. “My, how analog of you!”
Now, I’m certainly not encouraging us to become Mennonites. I like my DVDs, my satellite radio, my computer, and iPod too much. But there are times I long for the days of written correspondence (and the biographer in me shudders at the loss of written record in favor of unsaved e-mails). At the very least, I wish there was a better way of bringing some sort of decorum to e-mail. Apart from the smiley faces and the “No All-Caps” rule, I mean.
I’d like to see a study done about the increase in arguments due to the increase in email and instant messenger use. I can’t tell you how many misunderstandings I’ve had with people due to incorrectly reading a “tone.” Perhaps the biggest benefit of analog writing is the tendency to slow down and think about how the message will be received.
The anonymity and speed of the Internet makes us all behave with less civility. Email is merely the Id of the great big, electronic psyche.