How Lewis Carroll’s Rules of Letter-Writing Can Make Email More Civil and Digital Communication Kinder
By Maria Popova
I have a friend who writes me wonderful letters. He sends them via email, but they are very much letters — the kind of slow, contemplative correspondence that Virginia Woolf termed “the humane art.” For what more humane an act is there than correspondence itself — the art of mutual response — especially amid a culture of knee-jerk reactions that is the hallmark of most communication today? Letters, by their very nature, make us pause to reflect on what the other person is saying and on what we’d like to say to them in response. Only when we step out of the reactive ego, out of the anxious immediacy that text-messaging and email have instilled in us, and contemplate what is being communicated — only then do we stand a chance of being civil to one another, and maybe even kind.
These values are what mathematician Charles Dodgson (January 27, 1832–January 14, 1898), better known as Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll, set out to celebrate in his short 1890 pamphlet Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing (public library; free download). Carroll is less concerned with the epistolary etiquette of letter-writing — the subject of another how-to book from that era — than he is with the higher-order ethics of correspondence as a form of civility. Although some of the nine rules are decidedly dated — such as his “rules for making, and keeping, a Letter-Register” of “Letters Received and Sent” — most offer wisdom of surprisingly civilizing value when applied to email and other contemporary textual communication.
Even the seemingly dated — those ideas that appear, on the surface, to apply strictly and solely to old-fashion letter-writing — contain ample wisdom to be gleaned for any modern medium. Take, for instance, Carroll’s opening exhortation:
If the Letter is to be in answer to another, begin by getting out that other letter and reading it through, in order to refresh your memory, as to what it is you have to answer… A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly.
Of all the emails you regret firing off in a reactive fury, how many could have been abated by a deliberate pause for rereading your correspondent’s points and contemplating your own reply a little less hastily? Carroll, in fact, addresses this directly in his fourth rule:
When you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend, however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead, and thus making a much more palatable dish of it!
His fifth rule furthers this agenda of abating reactivity by suggesting a sort of one-upmanship of civility in contentious exchanges:
If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe: and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards “making up” the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly. If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in making friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way — why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels!
He later recommends a similar approach to the sentiment of the signature:
If doubtful whether to end with “yours faithfully,” or “yours truly,” or “yours most truly,” &c. (there are at least a dozen varieties, before you reach “yours affectionately”), refer to your correspondent’s last letter, and make your winding-up at least as friendly as his; in fact, even if a shade more friendly, it will do no harm!
The sixth dictum — which philosopher Daniel Dennett would come to echo more than a century later in his four rules for arguing intelligently — builds on the fifth. Lewis writes:
Don’t try to have the last word! How many a controversy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anxious to let the other have the last word! Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered: never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say: let the thing drop, as soon as it is possible without discourtesy: remember “speech is silvern, but silence is golden”!
Carroll makes a related case against our stubborn self-righteousness — to which he brings a delightful touch of his mathematician’s wit — in the third rule:
Don’t repeat yourself. When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end?
His seventh rule is of particular interest in the context of today’s ambivalence about using emoticons in email. Even those unfazed by self-consciousness about the silliness of emoticons, to say nothing of emoji, remain exasperated by the general difficulty in conveying subtle emotional nuances in written communication — especially sarcasm and snark, the latter being Carroll’s own invention. Writing nine years after the first usage of an emoticon in print, Carroll counsels:
If it should ever occur to you to write, jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences. I have known it to lead to the breaking-off of a friendship.
The remaining rules are, indeed, rather dated in the context of digital communication, but even among them there is the occasional pearl of timeless lucidity. In the ninth, for instance — which deals with the issue of having more to say in a letter than the paper on hand has room to accommodate — Carroll offers this eternally pragmatic aside:
A Postscript is a very useful invention: but it is not meant… to contain the real gist of the letter: it serves rather to throw into the shade any little matter we do not wish to make a fuss about.
Ever the tactful diplomat, Carroll offers a counterpoint to such misuses of the postscript by pointing out one particularly appropriate use — the delicate assuaging of a friend’s anxieties by demoting them to the very bottom of the letter and thus the lowest order of concern. He offers as an example a friend who has promised to do something for you and is now writing, mortified, to apologize for having forgotten to do it; the conscientious correspondent, Carroll points out, would avoid making the oversight the main subject of his or her reply — for this “would be cruel, and needlessly crushing” — and instead writes a letter about entirely different matters, graciously adding: “P.S. Don’t distress yourself any more about having omitted that little matter…”
And now for a curious sidebar story: Although Carroll was a genuine lover of the letter form, the booklet was in part an exercise in “branded content”: The previous year, Carroll had patented a quirky little invention he called The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case — an offbeat solution to the delightfully quaint problem of having your written communication constantly stymied by running out of stamps — for which the pamphlet was essentially promotional material. Carroll had done nothing more than create a playful and somewhat better-designed alternative to the regular stamp case, but such subtleties are often the differentiation point of genius. The book even included a mock-testimonial:
Since I have possessed a “Wonderland Stamp Case”, Life has been bright and peaceful, and I have used no other. I believe the Queen’s laundress uses no other.
The case contained twelve separate pockets of stamps, each designated for a different stamp-value.
Carroll took especial pride in what he called the two “Pictorial Surprises” gracing the cover: The outer slipcase depicts Alice holding the Duchess’s crying baby — not an illustration that appears anywhere in his Alice books — but inside it is the actual stamp case, on which the baby transmogrifies into a pig. In the book, Carroll winks at this playful trick:
If that doesn’t surprise you, why, I suppose you wouldn’t be surprised if your own Mother-in-law suddenly turned into a Gyroscope!
Complement Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing with Carroll’s four rules for digesting information, his tips on dining etiquette, his entertaining letter of apology for standing a friend up, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, then revisit Virginia Woolf on what killed letter-writing and why we ought to keep it alive.
Published January 27, 2015