Correspondence Courses

September 25, 2009

When I moved, not too long ago, one of the things I was sorting through was a bunch of old files containing letters to and from friends and colleagues.  (For younger readers who are unfamiliar with this idea, we used to actually write messages on paper, put them in envelopes, and send them via snail-mail to people we knew.  It was fun to get and send them, providing a break from sharpening our stone axes and hunting mastodons.)  Looking back on that, it is really amazing how much the technology of personal communications has changed; it’s tempting to think that the technological change has produced a corresponding change in our habits.

However, people’s communicating habits have stayed remarkably consistent, according to an article on the Web site, reporting a study by researchers at Northwestern University, and published today in Science [abstract]:

A new Northwestern University study of human behavior has determined that those who wrote letters using pen and paper — long before electronic mail existed — did so in a pattern similar to the way people use e-mail today.

The study examined the correspondence history of sixteen well-known historical personalities, ranging from Sir Francis Bacon, as far back as 1574, to writer Carl Sandburg, as recently as 1966.  It has been suggested that people’s use of E-mail is driven primarily by the need to respond to others (and that may be the case for a certain amount of business E-mail), but the study found that personal correspondence by E-mail followed the same patterns as pen-and-ink mail.

No matter what their profession, all the letter writers behaved the same way. They adhered to a circadian cycle; they tended to write a number of letters at one sitting, which is more efficient; and when they wrote had more to do with chance and circumstances than a rational approach of writing the most important letter first.

The researchers found that, with some adjustments to time scales, the same behavior models could describe both the historical correspondence and contemporary E-mail.

(As an aside, the time scale adjustment may in some cases be less than you might think.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was possible, even commonplace, for someone in London to send a letter to a friend in Oxford, inviting him to dinner that evening — and to receive a reply by a later post that day.)

People in some ways are amazingly adaptable when it comes to using technology; but there are some parts of our psychological make-up that tend to be pretty stable.

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