Ah, the intemperate letter or e-mail, this blogger has known 'em well. To his ultimate sorrow. Writing the words just felt so good. The consequence of public awareness, not so much. If this is (fair & balanced) epistolary etiquette, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
The Lost Art Of the Unsent Angry Letter
By Maria Konnikova
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Whenever Abraham Lincoln felt the urge to tell someone off, he would compose what he called a “hot letter.” He’d pile all of his anger into a note, “put it aside until his emotions cooled down,” Doris Kearns Goodwin once explained on NPR, “and then write: ‘Never sent. Never signed.’ ” Which meant that Gen. George G. Meade, for one, would never hear from his commander in chief that Lincoln blamed him for letting Robert E. Lee escape after Gettysburg.
Lincoln was hardly unique. Among public figures who need to think twice about their choice of words, the unsent angry letter has a venerable tradition. Its purpose is twofold. It serves as a type of emotional catharsis, a way to let it all out without the repercussions of true engagement. And it acts as a strategic catharsis, an exercise in saying what you really think, which Mark Twain (himself a notable non-sender of correspondence) believed provided “unallowable frankness & freedom.”
Harry S. Truman once almost informed the treasurer of the United States that “I don’t think that the financial advisor of God Himself would be able to understand what the financial position of the Government of the United States is, by reading your statement.” In 1922, Winston Churchill nearly warned Prime Minister David Lloyd George that when it came to Iraq, “we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.” Mark Twain all but chastised Russians for being too passive when it came to the czar’s abuses, writing, “Apparently none of them can bear to think of losing the present hell entirely, they merely want the temperature cooled down a little.”
But while it may be the unsent mail of politicians and writers that is saved for posterity, that doesn’t mean that they somehow hold a monopoly on the practice. Lovers carry on impassioned correspondence that the beloved never sees; family members vent their mutual frustrations. We rail against the imbecile who elbowed past us on the subway platform.
Personally, when I’m working on an article with an editor, I have a habit of using the “track changes” feature in Microsoft Word for writing retorts to suggested editorial changes. I then cool off and promptly delete the comments — and, usually, make the changes. (As far as I know, the uncensored me hasn’t made it into a final version.)
In some ways, little has changed in the art of the unsent letter since Lincoln thought better of excoriating Meade. We may have switched the format from paper to screen, but the process is largely the same. You feel angry. And you construct a retort — only to find yourself thinking better of taking it any further. Emotions cooled, you proceed in a more reasonable, and reasoned, fashion. It’s the opposite of the glib rejoinder that you think of just a bit too late and never quite get to say.
But it strikes me that in other, perhaps more fundamental, respects, the art of the unsent angry letter has changed beyond recognition in the world of social media. For one thing, the Internet has made the enterprise far more public. Truman, Lincoln and Churchill would file away their unsent correspondence. No one outside their inner circle would read what they had written. Now we have the option of writing what should have been our unsent words for all the world to see. There are threads on reddit and many a website devoted to those notes you’d send if only you were braver, not to mention the habit of sites like Thought Catalog of phrasing entire articles as letters that were never sent.
Want to express your frustration with your ex? Just submit a piece called “An Open Letter to the Girl I Loved and Lost,” and hope that she sees it and recognize herself. You, of course, have taken none of the risk of sending it to her directly.
A tweet about “that person,” a post about “restaurant employees who should know better”; you put in just enough detail to make the insinuation fairly obvious, but not enough that, if caught, you couldn’t deny the whole thing. It’s public shaming with an escape hatch. Does knowing that we can expect a collective response to our indignation make it more satisfying?
Not really. Though we create a safety net, we may end up tangled all the same. We have more avenues to express immediate displeasure than ever before, and may thus find ourselves more likely to hit send or tweet when we would have done better to hit save or delete. The ease of venting drowns out the possibility of recanting, and the speed of it all prevents a deeper consideration of what exactly we should say and why, precisely, we should say it.
When Lincoln wanted to voice his displeasure, he had to find a secretary or, at the very least, a pen. That process alone was a way of exercising self-control — twice over. It allowed him not only to express his thoughts in private (so as not to express them by mistake in public), but also to determine which was which: the anger that should be voiced versus the anger that should be kept quiet.
Now we need only click a reply button to rattle off our displeasures. And in the heat of the moment, we find the line between an appropriate response and one that needs a cooling-off period blurring. We toss our reflexive anger out there, but we do it publicly, without the private buffer that once would have let us separate what needed to be said from what needed only to be felt. It’s especially true when we see similarly angry commentary coming from others. Our own fury begins to feel more socially appropriate.
We may also find ourselves feeling less satisfied. Because the angry email (or tweet or text or whatnot) takes so much less effort to compose than a pen-and-paper letter, it may in the end offer us a less cathartic experience, in just the same way that pressing the end call button on your cellphone will never be quite the same as slamming down an old-fashioned receiver.
Perhaps that’s why we see so much vitriol online, so many anonymous, bitter comments, so many imprudent tweets and messy posts. Because creating them is less cathartic, you feel the need to do it more often. When your emotions never quite cool, they keep coming out in other ways.
But even though a degree of depth and consideration may well have been lost along with the art of the unsent letter, something was also lost with those old letters that weren’t sent because their would-be sender overthought their appropriateness. I’d have loved for Truman to have actually sent this one off to the red-baiting Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy: “You are not even fit to have a hand in the operation of the Government of the United States. I am very sure that the people of Wisconsin are extremely sorry that they are represented by a person who has as little sense of responsibility as you have.”
Truman may have ended up regretting lashing out, but at least he would have had the satisfaction of knowing that he’d told off one of the blights of the American political scene when so many kept quiet. What survived as a “hot letter” would have made for quite the viral email. Ω
[Maria Konnikova was born in Moscow and moved to the U.S. as a four-year-old. She graduated magna cum laude (BA, psychology) from Harvard University and received a PhD (psychology) from Columbia University. Her first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013), was a New York Times bestseller. More recently, Her second book, on the psychology of the confidence game, is scheduled for publication by Viking/Penguin next winter. Her writing has appeared online and in print in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Observer, Scientific American MIND, WIRED, and Scientific American.]
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