Skip to content

Snail mail versus electronic mail

So what’s your preference …‘real’ mail or e-mail? I’m almost positive that the answers will be age-biased.

So what’s your preference …‘real’ mail or e-mail? I’m almost positive that the answers will be age-biased. For those of us who were ‘print-raised’ and can remember sending a first class letter for six cents (three cents if it were to a local address or unsealed!), e-mail will never carry the cachet, the romance, or the mystery of a genuine, handheld letter.

Many of us from the early to mid-last century will have struggled with and succumbed to the immediacy and intricacies of e-mail and even appreciated its ability to get things done in a hurry and without accumulating reams of paper. And for business, or even quick friend and family orders, questions, plans/changes, and reassurances, e-mail is the winner.

BUT …! It’s not the same! An e-mail letter and a snail mail letter may carry the exact same information and endearments, but the transference of the literal human touch is not there.

When I receive an e-mail letter of any length from someone far and dear, I immediately hit ‘Print’, refrain from looking at the screen, then take the hard copy to the garden or my favorite chair, relax, and savour the latest news; a little reflection, a second reading, and the letter is put aside for answering. (I do bow to the ‘green thing’ and use paper from my recycled pile.)

Now, a letter in the superbox is a much more in-depth experience — almost as titillating as bending to look through the glass door of old ‘Box 88’ of my youth, when I could see, even before inserting the key whether a fat air mail letter from Canada’s nether regions was awaiting. This after hearing the train from Toronto puff into the station, watching the mailbags lugged across the square to the P.O., and giving the postmistress and her minions time to sort the mail. And if I’d forgotten my key, sometimes the ladies behind the grill would grudgingly go to retrieve my letters from the box.

Yes, an envelope in the hand is worth many scrolls on the screen. Usually just the handwriting itself precludes a glance for the return address. And there’s still the mystery of what may be inside; paper and words for certain but the possibility of so much more — pressed leaves, flowers, feathers, even tiny flat pebbles or shells; photos, clippings, or a carefully chosen card that says or shows so much. And how, on an e-mail letter can you convey, genuinely, S.W.A.K.?

Occasionally, on our travels, we choose to send a missive scratched on an unconventional form of stationery. I’ve sent and received notes written on a far northern scroll of birch bark or on a thin patch of cedar. I haven’t yet figured out how to scan that bit of the real world into an e-mail.

Letter-writing (real) can be a very special occasion in itself. You may have splurged on some creamy vellum or linen stationery. Taking your favorite pen (yea, even one with real ink!), the putting of the words on the paper is a sensual experience of no small pleasure, and you can’t help thinking about just how the recipient will react to them. Sometimes, your correspondent will even let you know that he/she can tell your mood and disposition at the time of writing by the appearance of your handwriting.

Like the rest of life, one’s letter-writing habits change over the years.

Early on, we would not have dreamed of writing a letter on lined paper — horrors — what did that say about our penmanship? When the fingers began to cramp and the hand became less steady, though, those lines were a helpful guide to our thoughts.

Then somewhere along the way, the 8 x 11 ½ blank pages gave way to cards … still a letter, but with a smaller surface to cover (but once in a while having to tuck in an extra page to get it all said).

So let’s hear it for real, snail though it may be … MAIL! And if your mailbox is empty for awhile right now, there’s always “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter …”


— Nancy Whelan is a regular News columnist. She lives in Oceanside.