the art of letter writing or how to not regret an email

On my post about friendship, a comment was left about writing emails/letters in certain cases when dealing with a difficult friend situation…specifically “dumping” one. And a reference was made about how writing could be a cop out. The comment has inspired another post.

There is something to be said about written communication. As most of you know, being that you are bloggers, writing and speaking are two very different art forms and the same words can have very different effects. Where spoken words can resonate for a long time and can be very hurtful, they are not easily read, over and over and over again, as are words on a page (or a computer screen). With speaking, intonations, body language, and facial expression all play part in communicating. In writing, emoticons are about the limit of non-verbal communication. For these reasons, I don’t see writing as a cop out (although it is easier) as much as I see it as a very, very powerful weapon that can easily do irreversible damage.

I, unfortunately, have a lot of experience with the negative effects of writing. Yes…I am confessing. Anyone who knows me knows that I have (or have had) a problem with this. I can be absolutely ruthless. I know how to write things in just a way to rip someone apart and, in the past, I have done this intentionally. Are you wondering why I have friends? Me, too.

I have learned a lot about written communication over the course of my life. I would like to share some thoughts with you so that you can, if at all possible, learn from my mistakes, and hopefully avoid your own. I will be referring to letters/emails, but not text messages. I don’t think text messaging should ever be used as a form of communicating anything that is emotionally important, so there is no need to address them. Another disclaimer, these thoughts are only in reference to communication that is about you and the other person. When acting in behalf of someone else, my thoughts/rules are different. Now, let’s begin.

  1. The very first thing to contemplate is whether the conversation is even necessary? Is their a benefit to having this interaction? What is it? The bottom line…you are about to hurt someone’s feelings (assuming she has them…sorry, that was rude). You better have a good reason for doing it.
  2. Assuming the conversation is necessary, before beginning a difficult letter, you need to consider what your motivation is for writing rather than speaking. In my opinion (which is often flawed), speaking is always a better choice, even if it is more difficult, unless you are dealing with a manipulative person who always manages to turn things around so that you end up being the one to apologize or back down. (And these people are often not malicious, they have just learned how to get things through manipulation…often they don’t even realize they are doing it).
  3. The next thing to consider is your purpose in writing, period. Not as opposed to speaking, but in terms of what your desired outcome is.
    1. The biggest mistake a person can make in writing to someone (or having a conversation) is to do it in hopes of changing the other person. You are not going to change them.
    2. The second biggest mistake is to think that you are doing the person a service by telling him whatever it is you want to say. This is because you have just made an assumption that you know how someone should be. You are not God and you don’t get to do that. You may not like how the person is acting. Fine. You can say that. But don’t assume that you are right.
    3. The best motivation (and I think only) is to explain your behavior (which includes feelings). I know that might sound weird, but think about it. You are the one who doesn’t want to spend time with that person any more. It is your choice.

  4. So, you’ve established that you want to write and that your motivation is correct. Now it’s time to construct the letter. The one thing that I have learned is shorter is always better. Keep it short and simple. It is going to hurt your friend no matter what. The fewer words, the better. Not just to avoid hurting a person as much as possible, but also to protect yourself. Words get twisted. The easiest way to avoid a massive tangle of words is to not use very many.
  5. State facts. This happened, this is how it made me feel, which is why I don’t want to… Don’t ever, ever, ever go on the attack. Trust me. It’s ugly. Not only that, but your chances of having any kind of positive effect generally drop to nil.
  6. The final step is to have someone else read the letter. Someone you know, and trust, who you consider to be a kinder person than you are, but who will also tell you when you’ve gone overboard. I use my sister. She is a great editor. Last year I was dealing with a difficult situation. I wrote out an email without any tempering or control, and sent it to my sister so that I could enjoy hitting the “send” button (once again, it really is amazing people like me). She promptly emailed me back telling me that I would regret saying anything that was in that email. Admittedly, it felt good to get it all out, but then I constructed a very simple, short email, resent it to my sister, got the stamp of approval, and I was done.
  7. Generally speaking, the actual letter writing itself may be just the therapy you need to deal with your issues with another person. I have written many more letters than I have ever sent (destroying them promptly) and through the process, I can often see where I am at fault and how modifying my behavior may, in fact, remedy the situation. Or see that writing them a letter would not solve the problem. Or that, as immature as this may sound, avoiding the person may, in fact, be the best solution.
  8. You probably want to consider a few things: Would I be willing to say these things to this person’s face (and if so, why am I not doing that)? How would I feel if I read this about myself? How would I feel if someone I really respected read this? How will I feel when I run into this person?

Final words…a conversation can be shared, but it will be paraphrased. Words on a page are exactly as they came. In email form, they can be sent to more people than a person actually knows (consider your own contact lists) in less than 30 seconds. How would you feel knowing that your letter was being sent to every friend that person has ever had. Trust me. I’ve done this. I received an email from someone once basically ripping me to shreds and you better believe I had forwarded it along to my closest friends within minutes. When a person is being attacked, she wants someone to comfort, validate, console her. You can’t blame me (or anyone) for forwarding those emails along.

The truth is, in 30 years, I only feel like have done this well one time, out of four or five (see…I really think when it comes to the tough stuff, in person is much better than written). And a couple of the bad times were very, very, very bad. Horribly bad. If I could take them back, I would. I just don’t want you to live through the same things I have. So, if you are dealing with someone you need to “dump”…good luck.

7 thoughts on “the art of letter writing or how to not regret an email

  1. “I see it as a very, very powerful weapon that can easily do irreversible damage.” I totally agree. Most of the time, when I get the urge to write a hurtful letter, my only intention is to hurt. Obviously, I’m better off not sending those! It’s dangerous to have those words available for re-reading. Good thoughts.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Cheesy as it may sound I now pray about it before actually delivering the letter (e-mail has never been an option for me)… this has saved me so many times. When I have realized that I just needed to vent and come to terms with my own thoughts. It has made me realize that if my intention is not to hurt those I love (this is usually who I am dealing with) then I am probably not going about it the right way. I am now a positive only letter writer… things that documented proof is a positive.

  3. My Sister in Law is from Franfeld and her maiden name is Klaumunzner. I probably butchered the spelling on both of those! Her first language is Swiss German, but she also speaks English, German, French and Italian. Jonathan and I are heading over there next year to visit them. I’ll have to email you before we go to get ideas of things to go do/see.

  4. Perfect timing! writing emails to “discuss” really difficult topics has become a bad habit among my in-laws. I feel like there are tons of regrettable emails floating around, getting forwarded to friends and other family members to get “input” on them…. It’s no fun, and I want it to stop. Maybe I’ll address them all through an email. 🙂 Thanks for your wisdom, and experience.

  5. I agree with your post 100%. The best part about writing these kind of letters is that you can write them and… and not send them. A few years ago, I tried to clear a bunch of people out of my life that were really toxic. Even though I felt really weird kind of dropping off the face of the Earth, I feel SO MUCH BETTER NOW

  6. Have I never explained to you that my brain NEVER STOPS. EVER. The only way to get something out of my brain is to write it down. This is why I do well with very little sleep. It’s what I’m used to.

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