Letter-Writing Advice From the 18th Century

Shannon Chamberlain published an interesting article yesterday at The Atlantic about business correspondence manuals in the 18th century and how they helped people to improve and refine their communication. It’s an interesting article, especially some of her thoughts toward the end about how the correspondence manual might be a helpful tool even today:

Even as we learn that young people do more writing these days than ever, we bemoan their lack of basic communication skills, the influence of texting on their orthography, and the fact that they talk like Internet cats to their potential employers.

The banal familiarity of the handwringing about the younger generation’s foibles doesn’t quite dull the shock of getting an email addressed “heyyyyy profesor” or punctuated with “dude” in lieu of commas or periods (I am not a dude). But there are other, subtler ways in which the world of the 18th-century correspondence manual resonates with our current context, ones that suggest that a revival of the letter-writing manual might be in order.

She also writes that in 1751, the Earl of Chesterfield offered some advice to his son Philip on the topic of his business correspondence: “In business, an elegant simplicity, the result of care, not of labor, is required.” Good advice even today for those of us whose occupation involves correspondence, whether it’s email or even text message. At its heart, this is why I prefer the carefully-written text message to emails or telephone calls when coordinating or exchanging quick bits of information: the nature of the text message is brevity above all, inclining one to dispense with the very American tendency to pad communication with small-talk and other filler.

Check out the article, and let me know your thoughts. Do you think there’s a use for correspondence manuals in today’s realm of business communication? Do you bemoan the influence of text messaging, or do you think there’s something redeemable there?

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