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August 24, 2023 · 18 min read

Season 4, Ep. 28 – TWiTH: Miss Manners addresses computer correspondence, with

These days, barely a second thought is given to sending off some manner or another of virtual correspondence. But back in the infancy of computer-typed messaging, Miss Manners had quite a few things to say about how inappropriate its use was, as Abbey and Victoria talk about on This Week in Tech History.


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Abbey (00:02):

It is hot, and it’s August, so it’s gonna rain.

Victoria (00:06):

It’s gonna rain. I don’t know. It’s just one of those things where I’m like, I really don’t know how to like, be aggressive without being like, understand that there’s like, some requirements in place, but also like, are we really working on this like, every day?

Abbey (00:23):

Yeah. We luckily didn’t have anything, like, our house was built in 1944. Actually, the door to the basement was just, from the outside, rotted away. (Victoria: Yeah.) We did fix that.

Victoria (00:42):

But this is like, a historically zoned neighborhood.

Abbey (00:46):

And I live in unincorporated county with a, our house has open zoning, so like, if we wanted to build an apartment in the backyard, we could. (Victoria: Yeah.) They do not care in North Carolina <laugh>. They’re like, you can do whatever you want. That’s fine. The only thing we have rules on is like, you have to wear a motorcycle helmet. (Victoria: <Inaudible>.) No, but of all the other things…

Victoria (01:14):

My mom’s side of the family is originally where like, Chris is at, kind of, like, that area-ish.

Abbey (01:21):

Okay. I recorded with him earlier today, and him and his wife are coming here in a couple weeks to look at houses, possibly move out this way. (Victoria: Oh, wow.) Yeah.

Victoria (01:32):

I mean, my parents are getting ready to move back to like, the east side of North Carolina, and my fear is more of like, the hurricane, tropical storm, (Abbey: Yeah.) and so I could see moving west a little bit.

Abbey (01:50):

The tornado warning we got last week. Nothing. It rained for like, 45 minutes. It’s like…

Victoria (01:58):

Yeah, we were on a watch, but that’s not unusual.

Abbey (02:02):

I’m new to that. We did not get them in the mountains. (Victoria: <Laugh>.) Well, I wish you the best of luck with the windows. (Victoria: Thank you.) It’s probably cool living in a historic building until things like that happen.

Victoria (02:18):

It’s one of the, yeah, I think this building is great, and like, the landlord is awesome. Had some really good conversations, but it’s just like, yeah. When it comes to like…promptness is not the right word <laugh>…

Abbey (02:36):

<Laugh>. The level of care. As long as you haven’t been in writing. (Victoria: Yeah.) Which brings us to today’s topic. (Victoria: Nice.) And I think this is gonna be the last of the This Week in Tech History episodes, (Victoria: Aw.) so a very special occasion.

Victoria (02:52):

A beautiful series.

Abbey (02:54):

I am like, if I, for a living, could write research papers, I would. And I mean that in the sincerest form of making a living at it, because I don’t want to go into academia. That sounds very depressing. I’ve been loving writing little research projects once a week. 

Victoria (03:18):

Yeah. This is giving you your fix.

Abbey (03:20):

Yeah. Now I’ll just have to go in depth for our Friday “I learned something” updates <laugh>.

Victoria (03:24):

There you go. Yeah.

Abbey (03:26):

(RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES IN) Well, obviously, we use email correspondence for like, everything today, text. We were just talking about it with you talking with your landlord. In the early ‘80s, it was like, a pretty new thing. So on August 26th, 1984, Miss Manners…do you follow Miss Manners or read any of her things ever?

Victoria (03:47):

I remember like, growing up like, the newspaper column. (Abbey: Yeah.) Yeah <laugh>.

Abbey (03:54):

And in reading some of the stuff for researching this, I was like, wow, I apparently have very poor manners <laugh>.

Victoria (04:00):

It was a mixture of like, probably really poor manners, but also reading that, just being so nosy about the people [who] are writing in.

Abbey (04:06):

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It’s like the “Dear Abby” columns and your <inaudible>. Oh, yeah.

Judith Martin, via “Miss Manners on Weddings” video clip  (04:12):

(VIDEO CLIP AUDIO PLAYS) Just a minute! You have some qualms, don’t you, about marrying somebody who seems that greedy and selfish, but you are not really that indifferent to your family’s feelings, are you? And you’re not quite such a materialistic tyrant as all that. Then why did you allow the planning of your wedding to bring out the worst in you? You kept saying you wanted it to be perfect. Let’s do it all over and see if we can make it better.

Abbey (04:45):

So she had a reader who wrote in with a concern about typing personal correspondence on a personal computer, and they were concerned that using a computer was more convenient, but they were worried about poor quality of the dot matrix printer, valid concern, and about copying parts of one letter into another. Miss Manners replied that computers, like typewriters, generally are inappropriate for personal correspondence. “In the event a word processor is used,” she warned, “the recipient may confuse the letter for a sweepstakes entry,” And she noted, “If any one of your friends ever sees that your letter to another contains identical ingredients, you’ll have no further correspondence problems,” insinuating that somebody would just like…that’s the ‘80s version of unfollowing.

Victoria (05:41):

That’s the ‘80s version of unfollowing, or the early 2000s version of changing your Top 8.

Abbey (05:49):

Oh, yeah, yeah. You’re not on the list anymore, and you gotta find out why. (Victoria: <Laugh>.) She does offer, like, I was interested to see like, some specifics on what she updated since then, because, obviously, we use it for everything, but it’s still included as of 10 years ago, not sending electronic correspondence regarding weddings. Sentimental messages should always be handwritten, usually in a blank card. It’s cheating to use a card with a free printed message. So the headline for this said, “Don’t wish your mother a ‘Happy Birthday’ on Facebook.” Which, I don’t know. If your mom’s on Facebook, why not? But it was super, I think it’s super interesting to see how that, one, just how it changed between those, I guess that was, I don’t know, 25 years, and how it’s changed since then. I guess I did send out wedding invites, but I did not ask anyone to send me anything back. It’s like, get online, please. I don’t need more paper in this house right now. I don’t know. I thought it was interesting that she lumped it in with typewriters.

Victoria (07:03):

The same like, media format…medium <laugh>?

Abbey (07:09):

I mean she lumps them both together as like, so impersonal to be using (Victoria: Yeah.) for correspondence. At what point did that fall out of favor? You know? (Victoria: Yeah.) When I was younger, I had a pen pal, but it was like, actually writing out letters. (Victoria: Yeah.) So like, I feel like maybe that’s a good mark of like, was there a point where pen pals became somebody you emailed with?

Victoria (07:30):

Yeah. I feel like when I was like, in grade school or early middle school, it was pen pal-ing, but it was through email with like, gosh, where was it…but it was an email pen pal program. It wasn’t like, writing a letter. (Abbey: Yeah.) And I mean, at a certain point, it’s like, the adaptability of that where it’s like, everything at that point was moving to like, a digital format, and so it makes sense that you move away from pen and paper.

Abbey (08:05):

Yeah. I think that anytime, I’m sure at some point it was seen as impersonal altogether to write a letter on a typewriter. 

Victoria (08:15): 

Yeah. Well, now, I mean like…

Abbey ():

It’s interesting to see like, how etiquette changes as technology changes. (Victoria: Yeah.) No matter what technological innovation has been made, there’s always somebody who’s gonna be salty about it, replacing whatever their preferred medium is, and then somebody who makes the first serious faux pa with it.

Victoria (08:43):

I think, yeah. That’s like, a really, it’s interesting to think about right now, honestly, because growing up, my grandparents would always send like, a physical birthday card in the mail, (Abbey: Yeah.) and the requirement was we had to send like, a thank you note back. (Abbey: Yeah.) And I, at some point the cards switched to, there’s still physical cards that my grandparents sent, which is very sweet and wonderful, but they’ll also send e-gift cards, and so it was just so easy just to like, reply, (Abbey: Yeah.) “Thanks, Grandma.” (Abbey: Yeah.) Or even just like, a phone call (Abbey: Yeah.) was still not necessarily the same as like, getting a thank you note back. I don’t know.

Abbey (09:20):

It had to be handwritten. (Victoria: Yeah.) It had to be in your nicest cursive, which I don’t even think they teach kids anymore.

Victoria (09:26):

<Laugh>. I don’t know that they do. That or shorthand. 

Abbey (09:31):

Yeah. I don’t think I ever learned shorthand. I especially like the call out to the sweepstakes. (Victoria: Yeah.) The few things that stood out were the call out to the sweepstakes and the like, if your friends are comparing letters. Theoretically, you could write the same thing in multiple letters. It could be handwritten and still the same. 

Victoria (09:55):

Yeah, ’cause I mean, I’m just getting into like, the dramatic aspect of (Abbey: Yes.) this <inaudible> my mind just completely built it out, where I’m writing these beautiful letters, printing ’em out, and sending ’em out. In my mind, those friends likely live somewhere else than me, right? So I don’t know that I’m sending them to the same destination. I guess, unless I’m like, writing back home, if I send these back to Nebraska. Even now, I don’t know <laugh>.

Abbey (10:29):

That is a good point. Like, if you’re sending letters to like, one’s going to New Jersey, one’s going to Florida, and one’s going to like, Toronto, they’re calling each other up?

Victoria (10:41):

Yeah. But even then, are we spreading the news? Can I just give you a phone call and share that? This is like, a Christmas card equivalent. Everyone knows they’re getting the same picture. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.

Abbey (10:55):

Yes. My family’s always been big on the printed letters explaining what everyone’s been doing all year.

Victoria (11:03):

Listen, you sent this out back in the day, Miss Manners?

Abbey (11:07):

Miss Manners, I can guarantee you, my family was sending these out in the ‘80s. (Victoria: <Laugh>.) Guarantee.

Victoria (11:15):

She can hold a real grudge to that, and as far as she’s concerned, no more Christmas letters next year for anyone.

Abbey (11:24):

No more Christmas letters. You won’t have to worry about it. Your future correspondence will not be a problem. (Victoria : <Laugh>.) But the sweepstakes, too, like, I don’t…

Victoria (11:38):

I would think that’s a scam from day one <laugh>.

Abbey (11:42):

<Laugh>. There’s no way someone wrote me a letter on a computer, and printed it out…

Victoria (11:47):

…and told me I won a thousand dollars. Absolutely.

Abbey (11:49):

Yeah. I mean, I guess like, Publishers Clearing House and stuff, I guess those are like, the back-in-the-day versions of online scams.

Victoria (11:56):

For sure. Snail mailed online scams <laugh>.

Abbey (12:01):

The real snail mail online scam was like, Columbia House (Victoria: <Laugh>.) with all those CDs, and they’re not age-checking anyone. (Victoria: <Laugh>.) Like, why did they just let 12-year-old me order Dr. Dre’s The Chronic? Then they called for payment, and my mother was like, “She’s 12, you can’t collect payment from her.”

Victoria (12:25):

<Laugh>. Wow, that’s really good.

Abbey (12:28):

That’s the first like, paper scam I remember. I’m sure there were others, but…

Victoria (12:34):

…first one I was interested in.

Abbey (12:36):

First one I got. Absolutely. “Will you give me 12 CDs for a penny? Great.” (Victoria: Absolutely.) Yeah. But I don’t remember sweepstakes being such a big issue that it would warrant being called out by Miss Manners.

Victoria (12:53):

Some real winners back then.

Abbey (12:57):

Man, I mean I feel like I was excited to have this conversation with you, because I think that you’re probably one of the people in the company who gets the most email correspondence.

Victoria (13:09):

The most…probably up there. Cameron might get quite a few (Abbey: Yeah.) <laugh>. But the email inbox stays full, for sure.

Abbey (13:22):

Do you think, have you noticed trends over the years of like, how people communicate? Or do you think that it’s like, does the way that somebody communicates with you, via email, or Slack, or I mean, obviously, like, Slack and text messages weren’t really as much of an issue.

Victoria (13:37):

Yeah. I think they’re all different, in terms of like, what, I don’t know if this is the right phrasing, but like, what you can get away with in certain like, formats where, to me, and maybe this ages me as well, but like, to me, emails feel way more formal and like, feel like they should be formatted a little bit more formally (Abbey: Yeah.) versus, if I’m having a conversation in Slack, where it’s, you know, quick and could be totally fine, you know, where it’s an instant exchange, versus email, it’s like, can be everything detailed, everything explained. And so it’s, I think when those overlap, where it’s like, I’m definitely not knocking smiley faces in emails to anyone that does that, (Abbey: <Laugh>.) something where I’m like, I feel weird putting that in an email, versus if I’m like, slacking or texting. (Abbey: Yeah.) If that makes sense. (Abbey: Yeah.) And so I feel like there is a difference in the way that people communicate across all of those like, formats. And what’s tricky across all of them is just like, online communication has so many different ways to be misconstrued, which is why I think the formality of an email is like, how I structure it.

Abbey (15:00):

That is an interesting like, kind of evolution of like, how we, all of the myriad ways we communicate. Especially now, because, you know like, three years ago, everybody was in offices, (Victoria: Yeah.) but if you have something to communicate, it’s usually done face-to-face. There is a lot less ambiguity in what’s being said.

Victoria (15:23):

Face-to-face or via email. Like, the first job I ever had that like, had Slack as a communication tool was mind-blowing to me. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) Like, people are just using emojis like, willy-nilly over here <laugh>. (Abbey: <Laugh>. Yeah.) <Inaudible>. (Abbey: Yeah.) Is this okay like, in the workspace? But I think like, it’s like, almost one of those things where it evolved. So like, same with Miss Manners, where she was like, “Letters should be personal to each individual.” (Abbey: Yeah.) <Inaudible> just hand write it. Like, it’s a very like, sort of intimate thing. And the same can sort of translate into work, where it’s like, very formalized structure, but as you cultivate like, your working environment, or working structure, or even type style, where that voice comes out a little bit more, (Abbey: Yeah.) changes the format versus like, the intent, I guess.

Abbey (16:24):

It’s almost like, part of the like, the digital like, the remote orientation with a new job isn’t so much like, how does the workplace work? It’s like, what’s the appropriate way to communicate in this company? How do people speak to each other?

Victoria (16:42):

Yeah. And it usually takes like, a few days to sort of understand what that cadence looks like. Like, when Ben introduces people to every single section, I find those introductions to each one to be both hilarious and informative, (Abbey: Yes.) ’cause they’re <inaudible> every time <laugh>.

Abbey (16:57):

Yeah. I feel like, even then, even after a few days, I mean, I started right before Christmas, so it was like, a slow ramp up for a lot of things anyway, and at my previous company, everyone used to email to keep track of things, and I started emailing things here, and Faith was like, “Abbey, no one’s gonna answer your emails,” <laugh>. I was like, “Okay, noted. I’ll start using Slack for everything.” And she was like, “That’s great. That’s how everyone communicates here.” I was like, “Okay.”

Victoria (17:25):

Instant. The notification is just right there and beautiful <laugh>. It doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as much.

Abbey (17:35):

Oh. Especially with the, I mean that’s a whole other can of worms. Like, how do you address general email addresses? So like, we both are on the email funnel for people who email [email protected]. I’ve seen some interesting choices people have made in there in how they address a company-wide email. (Victoria: Yes.) I’m sure you must get that times like, 50.

Victoria (18:11):

There’s, yeah. There’s definitely some where like, “Hello,” <laugh>. (Abbey: <Laugh>. “Hi!”) <Laugh>. “How ya doin’?”

Abbey (18:25):

Is this one of those tech scammers?

Victoria (18:29):

Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s just, nobody knows who’s on the other end, just sending it out into the ether, see who responds.

Abbey (18:38):

I’d like to think that I’d be like, polite to the ether, because you never know what’s gonna come back.

Victoria (18:45):

For sure. I was just having this conversation <laugh>, and it’s gonna be so silly to confess, but like, with like, I don’t wanna say…I don’t want it to go off, but like, with your like, home systems that you can talk to <laugh>.

Abbey (19:05):

Yeah <laugh>. You don’t wanna say it, because it’ll start recording this conversation.

Victoria (19:10):

It’s just gonna respond to me. It’s gonna try to talk to me, actually. If I ask, you know, “What time is it?” or “Can you set a timer?” I always say “Thank you,” (Abbey: Yes.) at the end. And I was having a conversation with someone, and they were like, “I always say ‘Thank you,’ because I feel like…” this is really not my story to share, I’m so gonna share it. “I always say ‘Thank you,’ because I feel like, one day Apple’s gonna come out with like, an award for someone that said “Thank you,” the most times in response,” (Abbey: <Laugh>.) <laugh> “to asking for something.” And it was just so like, genuine, where I was like, “You know, I hope that they do come out with that award and that you get it <laugh>.

Abbey (19:53):

But it, I mean that will help. What else are you, I mean, I don’t know. I was always raised to say “Please,” and “Thank you,” and so it feels like the natural way to end that conversation. (Victoria: <Inaudible>.) Is that like, the new frontier of like, you know, your home smart, your smart home (Victoria: <Laugh>.) creates a better and healthier environment for you, because you are polite to it.

Victoria (20:18):

And that’s the other thing where I’m like, I know that I say “Thank you,” to it in appreciation for telling me what time it is, but then I also get, if it updates one day to respond, it’ll freak me out <laugh>. (Abbey: Yeah.) Don’t say “You’re welcome.” It’s okay.

Abbey (20:40):

“You’re fine. You don’t have to thank me. I’m a robot.”

Victoria (20:43):

Yeah. Just track that I said “Thank you.” That’s it.

Abbey (20:50):

I can’t wait for the smart, polite robots to take over. (Victoria: <Laugh>.) Those are the ones I want in our corner. Those are the ones I want responding to my emails.

Victoria (21:00):

I would agree. I would agree.

Abbey (21:02):

Well, thank you for joining me today. Very exciting to wrap up on Manners <laugh>. (Victoria: <Laugh>.) <Inaudible>. If there’s a, I’ll send you a follow up handwritten letter.

Victoria (21:14):

Oh, thank you. I do appreciate that. Wow, that just sparked some things <laugh>. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) For like, interview, like growing up it was like, post-interview, you should always send like, a handwritten letter. (Abbey: Yeah.) Like, how this is <inaudible>. I’m just like, tangentially saying this story, ’cause it really just sparks something, where it was like, I think it would’ve been in high school, it was like, sort of interview, job-ish prep, where they were like, “Have one ready to go. So like, on your way out the door, you could drop one in the mailbox,” kind of thing. Oh my gosh. I did not do that. I’m so sorry to Teja and Tyler for not sending any follow up, but…

Abbey (21:59):

They still hired you.

Victoria (22:01):

Yeah <laugh>. I sent an email one. (Abbey: Yeah.) Like, it was a, like a email “thank you.”

Abbey (22:07):

I almost think if you had sent them a handwritten one, it would’ve been very strange.

Victoria (22:12):

And that’s the thing where it’s like, the ebb and flow of what’s like, cool or not.

Abbey (22:20):

What’s appropriate.

Victoria (22:23):

What’s considered weird at a certain point. Like, once you have really just shipped it to everything, it’s almost digital. It almost feels weirder to receive something physical (Abbey: Yeah.) <laugh>. Like, oh, I got, yeah…<laugh>.

Abbey (22:39):

It’s a paper version of the copy they already sent me in my email.

Victoria (22:42):

I have to check my mail inbox for three weeks. Thank you, though. (Abbey: Yeah.) Email being like, so instantaneous. But yeah, I feel like at a certain point, it does feel a little bit odd to get, I don’t know, maybe it feels nice. I don’t know.

Abbey (22:59):

I know someone who loves to send postcards.

Victoria (23:01):

Postcards are fun. (Abbey: Yeah.) I, once again, this is all tangential, but like, what am I supposed to do with a postcard, at a certain point. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) It’s like, “Oh, that’s really cool that you were there, but I feel like this is a postcard for you to be there, because now I just have a catalog of everywhere you went that I wasn’t invited to,” <laugh>.

Abbey (23:23):

I need you to take me to Italy with you <laugh> (Victoria: <Laugh>.) She’s like, I’ll email you about it later. Strongly worded with hand movements.

Victoria (23:33):

Oh, yeah. Strongly worded. Mine’s always on point.

Abbey (23:39):

Yes. Alright, well thanks for doing this.

Victoria (23:42):

<Laugh>. Of course.

Faith, via previous recording (23:44):

Thanks for listening to the Frontier Podcast, powered by We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @theFrontierPod, and we’ll see you next week. (THE FRONTIER THEME ENDS)

Victoria (24:13):

…because they’re, every time <laugh>. 

Abbey (24:16):

<Dog barking> Yeah. Suge. Dog barking took my train of thought right off the tracks. (Victoria: <Laugh>.)