The lost art of letter writing

Nowadays, almost everyone communicates by instant messaging, whether it be email, SMS, MMS, e-chat, etc. They no longer write postcards or letters – and even faxes seem to be falling into disuse. 

I partly blame the South African Postal Services for this sorry state of affairs: When you write a letter, you have to stand in a queue at a post office that has limited hours of operation (usually when you yourself are at work), you have to pay a small fortune for the stamps, and then they go and lose your precious letter, or worse, your parcel!

I even discovered a few years back that it was pointless registering international mail, because – as a postal employee informed me snootily – “We only track it to the outbound airport in South Africa. Once it is on the plane, it is outside our control. Every country has its own tracking system, and we do not have access to it.”

Such abdication of responsibility quite simply makes me fume.

But instant messaging has had another worrying impact. In my daily work as an admin assistant at UCT, I have to write a lot of emails. And I mean A LOT.

A very good friend pointed out that she would rather PHONE someone than send an email. That applies to friends AND co-workers. But that just doesn’t work for me. I learned the hard way that, unless you put your requests or replies in writing, the addressee can claim with impunity, “I never received that instruction. You never told me that.”

Apart from that, few people are ever at their desks when you need them. And when they are, they tend to be irritatable and snappy because you’ve caught them unprepared for your preposterous request and because you’ve interrupted them when they were having a leisurely chat with a co-non-worker.

So I put everything in writing. Perhaps that’s a bit paranoid, but it works for me.

Despite the time pressure, I take pride in the fact that I make an effort to write clearly and succinctly. I try to make no typographical or grammatical errors, and when they do slip in, despite the automatic spell-checker and grammar-checker, I am mortified.

Nonetheless, I have lost count of the number of instances where the recipients of said emails have failed to follow simple instructions, overlooked important information (even if it was written in bold or highlighted), or simply not bothered to read it properly, thus setting in motion a chain-reaction of errors that takes weeks, and sometimes months, to correct in the slow-moving bureaucracy of UCT.

If these were simply students, that would be understandable. One of them even said to me, with disarming honesty, “I only read the first few lines of emails, and then I delete them.”


But this problem is not just confined to students. It also applies to highly intelligent lecturers who belong to the older, letter-writing generation and to trained and experienced admin staff.

In my darkest days of despair, I did an experiment: I decided that I would henceforth try to convey the requisite information in telegram-style SMS-speak.

I only held out for an hour before I was back to full sentences.

I'd love to hear your views

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