Catherine Cook, a straight-A student, is no dummy. But when it came time to mail her college application to Georgetown University last fall, she couldn't remember how to address the envelope.
"I had to look it up. I couldn't remember where the ZIP code went," Cook, the 17-year-old co-founder of myYearbook, said in a recent interview.
It shouldn't be much of a surprise that Cook thinks letters and snail mail are going the way of record albums and pay telephones. In fact, many kids say that e-mail--one of the Internet's oldest forms of messaging--has lost its appeal for everything except keeping up "adult" or professional relationships.
My goodness, what would Emily Post say? Unfortunately, she died in 1960, so CNET News.com asked Cindy Post Senning, director of the Emily Post Institute and great-granddaughter of the doyenne of etiquette. Post Senning co-authored the book Teen Manners: From Malls to Meals to Messaging and Beyond, which will be published by HarperCollins in September.
Surprisingly, Post Senning is sure her great-grandmother would have been an avid user of e-mail if she were still alive. But Post would have kept up on her letter writing, she said, if only because the act carries more weight and respect. For proper etiquette's sake, the Post Institute, created by Emily in 1946 to serve as a "civility barometer" for American society, advocates teens write thank-you letters for any and all gifts.
"It carries a different level of intention and care that someone's shown for you than just an e-mail," Post Senning said, adding, "People ask us if an e-mail note will suffice, and we'll tell them that it's better than no note at all, but a written note is imperative, especially if it's a grandparent."
Of course, you can't put all the blame on the Internet. The telephone has been used in lieu of the letter for quite a while now, and parents have long struggled to get their kids to write letters, or more likely, thank-you notes to their grandparents and distant relatives. Entrenched in a faster pace of life, adults are even writing fewer letters, according to experts. But now, with digital technology that so easily lets people keep tabs on friends, colleagues and schoolmates, the necessity or nicety of letters seems to fall away.
A mark of distinction
"Letter writing is a wonderful thing--when letters are kept, you have this record," said Ellen Seiter, a professor of critical studies at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. "I doubt people will be retrieving their IM files or e-mail years down the road, but that's kind of a different problem with the pace of life and the nature of relationships."
Nonetheless, Seiter believes that the propensity of kids and teens to use e-mail and IM makes them better able to write and communicate, even if it's not on paper. "All types of writing helps all other types of writing," she said. "The important thing about writing is formulating thoughts and ideas."
Seiter said that as letter writing becomes rare it will increasingly become a mark of distinction. Sending paper invitations or holiday cards will be a display of affluence and class, she said.
In the more formal camp, Post Senning tries to raise awareness among teens by reminding them how enjoyable it is to receive a letter. A teen coming home from school to see a letter with the name of the girl she met at camp can experience a little feeling of joy, she said. Parents, she said, should give their kids stationary and make letter writing a shared activity.
In her book, Post Senning offers teens eight tips for foolproof letter writing, advice that can be used for e-mail, too. The tips are fairly common sense, but for a teen who doesn't know how to address an envelope, they could be helpful: Date the letter, follow that with a greeting (the most common being "dear"), spell the name of the person correctly, write neatly, use good grammar, check your spelling, sign it and make sure you have the correct address. Finally, she said, remember to mail the letter.
Post Senning also cautions teens about using abbreviations and other short forms of writing typically used in IM in their letters and e-mail. "It's so quick that we've stopped being intentional about forming our words well," she said, adding that "the reason we do that is to show respect to the person we're sending the note to."
Not worth the effort
Still, ask a group of teenagers about writing letters and they'll say it's rarely worth the effort. In an informal survey of 20 teens from the San Francisco Bay Area, one in four said handwritten letters are the most obsolete form of communication. The high school seniors said they largely used their laptops to take class notes or send a virtual note to a friend via Facebook or instant chat.
"Sometimes I write 'I'm sorry' notes to my mom, but it's only because I know she thinks letters are really considerate," says Akshay Udiavar, a 17-year-old senior at The Harker School in San Jose, Calif.
Dan Dworkin, a longtime teacher at a San Francisco private school for middle school girls, said that every year at the beginning of summer, he asks his students to send him a postcard on their vacation. But every year, he gets fewer and fewer cards. The number this summer dropped from a typical dozen to four postcards. "I get a lot of pings on my IM though," Dworkin said.
Post Senning believes people would miss letters if they were to become a relic. A folio of letters leave a permanent record of what a person has done and where they've been that can't be replaced by e-mail, despite the perception that digital communications live on forever.
"Consider the 'Letters of Emily Dickinson,'" Post Senning said. "What if she had e-mail?"
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Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
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