The pen is mightier than the email

Do you remember as a child being forced to write thank-you letters for birthday or Christmas presents? I was one of five children and, as we opened our presents, we had to keep a list of who had given us what. The next day we all sat down at the kitchen table to write our handwritten thank-you letters.

I genuinely think this was one of the best habits that our parents instilled in us.

At the age of seven we were not allowed to simply write:

‘Dear Auntie Edith. Thank you for the toy car. Love, Robin.’   

We were encouraged to go with something more like:

‘Dear Auntie Edith. I hope you had a happy Christmas. Thank you so much for the Aston Martin DB5. How did you know that I loved Goldfinger? And the ejector seat actually works! I played with it all day today and it is now officially my favourite car. Maybe when I grow up, I will own an Aston Martin myself! Thank you so much. With lots of love, Robin.’

And, of course, the letter was handwritten.

When I was 21, my parents gave me a Mont Blanc fountain pen and a bottle of Burgundy Red ink. I use the same pen and the same colour today. It’s as recognisable as my signature.

I write letters and cards for birthdays, congratulations, condolences and thank-you’s.

I have to admit that my handwriting is not as good as it once was because I write less than I used to. So, when handwriting a card, I take time to write clearly. And I know that the receiver will sense the time and care that I’d put into writing it.

The thing about emails or texts is they tend to be written quickly. As if the sender has somehow dashed them off. Or sent them as an afterthought.

But a letter has to be planned in advance. It takes preparation to choose the right card, compose your thoughts, write it clearly, wait for the ink to dry and then post it in time.

And a letter says so much more than an email, because the intention behind it is usually crystal clear. Texts and emails often have to be accompanied by emojis to clarify their meaning. A smiley face telling you that a comment was meant to be funny rather than simply being rude or sarcastic.

And why is it acceptable to dump someone by email or text?

The worst case I heard of this was someone being dumped in only five letters: URMYX. Unnecessarily harsh. Surely a handwritten letter would have been kinder and included a tad more explanation.

My grandfather, who was a British ambassador, said that in diplomacy, ‘Sometimes it is more courageous to do nothing.’ I think by that he meant that it’s sometimes more sensible to wait a few hours before responding. Dashing responses off quickly often escalates a problem. By choosing to hand write a reply, after a time of reflection, he was never embarrassed by a speedy, unthought through response.

He also said that if he wanted to thank a member of his team, he would make a point of sending a handwritten letter to their home. Receiving a work-related letter at home means so much more than an anemic email or a Post-it note left on their desktop.

I remember as a young actor working for the legendary BBC TV producer Verity Lambert. She would always handwrite a card of thanks to every single actor in one of her series, sent to their home address. Even if you’d only had one line in the show, you would always receive a handwritten card from Verity. Sadly, she was the last producer that I know of who was kind enough to do that.

Recently I came across a proposal letter from my great-grandfather to my great-grandmother. It was clearly successful because they were married for 65 years. The language is more flamboyant and old-fashioned than nowadays, of course, but how lovely would it be to receive a letter that ended with:

‘I have today put my thoughts on paper. If I was to receive from you an unfavourable reply, then I shall, of all men, be the most miserable.’

I am not a hoarder, but I have a small wooden box at home which contains a selection of handwritten letters from my family and friends. As soon as I see the writing on an old envelope, I know exactly who the letter is from. And I smile. It’s almost as if I can see them sitting at their desk, having set time aside to put pen to paper. I think those letters are my most cherished possessions. Almost more valuable than photographs.

I do not store texts. I do not keep emails. But I treasure those handwritten letters and cards.

The pen is mightier than the email. I rest my case.

___

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“Robin is engaging, entertaining and full of practical advice. Highly recommended!”

Simon Buirski

Managing Partner, Lancor

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