Before e-mail, there was regular mail, in those days we just called it mail. As children, in a time before political correctness, we would eagerly await the daily visit of our mailman, who knew our dog’s name and handed us our mail with plenty of friendly eye-contact. Among the bills and flyers, were the exciting and frequent letters and postcards from friends and family near and far.
Today my mailperson hasn’t a clue who I am and frequently puts the wrong mail in my box. The letters are addressed to “resident,” and cards come only on my birthday. Receiving an e-mail is not nearly s exciting as receiving a letter in the mail. Anyone can send an e-mail, and it only takes a minute. To send a letter someone has to take a little time and effort to think about you and what they want to write.
Sitting down to write a letter can seem daunting. There are rules and etiquette pertaining to each and every level of formality. There are rules for how you will address the person you are writing to, the size of the margins you must leave, the kind of paper you use, how many times you should fold it, the colour of ink you write with, how you will terminate the letter and how you will sign your name at the end. On top of all that, there’s no spell-check and there’s no backspace.
When writing to a close friend, observation of these rules is not nearly as strict and overwhelming. All that matters is that you remain polite and as with any electronic correspondence you may be familiar with, statements that could be easily misconstrued when lacking tone of voice and body language, should be avoided. Any type of stationery can be used really, just as long as you don’t use the ruled sheets of paper with binder wholes in them, or paper ripped from a notebook or pad of paper. My suggestion is to find a nice all-purpose stationery or card set.
When writing to someone you don’t know very well, say, to thank them for a wedding gift, or to console someone who has recently lost a relative whom you were close to, the rules become more important. When beginning your letter, using “Dear,” is considered less formal than “My dear.” For a close friend, it is appropriate to write only their first name but when more respect is required, titles and last names should be used. For example, writing “Dear Elizabeth,” as opposed to “My dear Mrs. Harrison,” is seen as less formal. A standard two inches should be left at the top of the paper before your writing begins. Tasteful margins should also be left at the sides and bottom of the paper. There was a time when people who were writing a letter of condolence would correspond their margin widths to the depth or period of mourning associated with the death. The paper you choose should be white or cream, un-ruled, thicker than the paper you would use in your printer and should fit in the envelope in less than four folds. Black ink should be used and writing should be clear, neat and free from smudges and white-out. A great variety of letter terminations are commonly used and creativity in coming up with new ones is embraced. “Yours affectionately,” is very intimate, “Yours sincerely,” is less intimate, and “Yours truly,” can be used for strangers. “Yours cordially,” should only be used between women and “Yours faithfully,” only between romantic partners. When signing your name, it is in bad form to use abbreviations, short forms or pet names. Married women may choose to sign their full name with both their maiden and married surnames, unhyphenated.
It may seem intimidating and overwhelming now, but with practice these rules will feel natural and your own personal style will emerge. Soon you will be acknowledging all of your friends’ achievements and sorrows with the most elegant and heart-felt letters of the occasion.