Lewis Carroll didn’t live to see the 20th century, let alone the advent of email, but he knew a few things about correspondence. In the course of his career he wrote and received 98,721 letters (we know the precise count thanks to a special letter register he devised to keep track of them).
Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he was a professor of mathematics at Oxford. Being a teacher, Dodgson decided to document his advice about how to write more satisfying letters. He did this in a delightful little missive called Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing.
Although Dodgson knew only handwritten correspondence, I invite you to observe how seven of his suggestions, now 150 years old, might help you with your keyboard correspondence. (His words come first, in his favorite violet ink, followed by my commentary, adjusted for email.)
1. “Your friend is much more likely to enjoy your wit, after his own anxiety for information has been satisfied.”
Don’t compose your response until you have reread your friend’s email, keeping it freshly in mind. Then address your friend’s concerns and questions first—even if there are more than one. This way your friend won’t have to email you again, asking if you saw what s/he had previously written.
2. “In referring to anything your friend has said in his letter, it is best to quote the exact words, and not to give a summary of them in your words.”
To show them you’re truly listening, re-type your correspondents’ own words. (I heard the same advice a few years ago in a course on active listening that Jerry Bell, a professor at the University of North Carolina, taught.)
3. “When once you have said your say, full and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal.”
Know when to move on.
4. “If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe: and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards ‘making up’ the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly.”
Keep the criticism in check and the door to continued friendship open.
5. “If it should ever occur to you to write jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences.”
Be especially careful about what you think is playful teasing. Without your tone of voice or playful expression on your face, it’s just too easy to be misunderstood.
6. “When you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend, however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead, and thus making a much more palatable dish of it!”
Hitting send is even easier than sealing an envelope; give yourself the gift of perspective.
7. “How many a controversy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anxious to let the other have the last word! Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered: never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say…. remember ‘speech is silvern, but silence is golden’!”
Forget about having the last word…or at least, all the time.
You can tell Professor Dodgson was a kind man, and perhaps too keen to avoid conflict. Yes, conflict can be healthy, and arguments among people who trust one another can lead to clearing the air and better understanding. But this is better done face to face—or at least voice to voice—and not in written correspondence. What was true with letters in 1866 is as true today with email.
Isn’t it delightful that dear Professor Charles Dodgson can teach his students yet today? And not just in the dress of Lewis Carroll.
Excerpted from Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing by Lewis Carroll, with a foreword by Edward Wakeling and illustrations by Edward Koren. Levenger Press, 1999.