Virtual reality

Whenever I received a present as a child, I always wrote a thank-you note. It wasn’t instinctive, of course. Like most good manners, it was learned, or imposed.

And in our house, we had stationery specifically for the task. I didn’t write a note, but a ‘notelet’. How old-fashioned that sounds nowadays. Very Jane Austen.

It was never a long communication. Just a few words of thanks, with perhaps a line or two about what was happening in my largely uneventful young life. If the present was money, I wrote about how I might spend my gift (and yes, of course I lied).

I loved writing and receiving notes and cards, so I took to the task with relish. Of course it also gave me the opportunity to show off my latest handwriting style (chunky, copperplate, arty) and add some panache to my notelet.

How things have changed. Largely responsible is the arrival of the internet, email and mobile devices, and the decline of handwriting.

In the old days, everybody wrote copperplate, nobody had a computer and lots of people (mainly women) touch-typed. Nowadays, nobody writes copperplate, everybody has a computer an nobody (including women) touch-types.

So though we’re all connected, we’re less able to communicate. Writing longhand isn’t practical, but typing is a chore.

Our messages, when we do send them, are delivered immediately. And we’ve come to expect immediate responses. Email delivery receipts add to the problem: we know the instant our message is opened, and just how long the recipient waits before replying.

In my notelet days, things took longer. A day or two to be delivered, and a day or two for contemplation and composition, then the same for a return letter to arrive. There was no rush, and this decent interval was a welcome pause for digestion and reflection.

I adored writing, and when my best friend at school introduced me to penpals (this was the 70s, and they were all the rage) I was in heaven. I had a string of US penpals from coast to coast.

Everything about it was appealing: the red-and-blue bordered envelopes, the exotic stamps, the thin crinkly paper and the faint smell of bubblegum every time I opened a letter. To Liz in Ohio and Sherry in Honolulu, I wrote pages of teenage prose.

Now, it’s all gone. And with it, old-fashioned thoughtfulness and courtesy. In our always-on world, our attention span has shrunk, under constant attack from emails, texts and instant messaging.

Our standards of acceptable behaviour have also dropped. Physical distance has brought with it emotional detachment. People do things they’d be ashamed of face to face. But in the virtual world, virtual rudeness somehow slips under the radar. It’s become acceptable.

An acquaintance of mine dumped his lover by email. He wasn’t a twenty-something product of the digital age. He was a sixty-something grandfather, a late convert to the guilt-free world of email. Impeccably spoken and faultlessly behaved in other respects, he saw an opportunity to end an affair painlessly (for him, at any rate) and grabbed it with both hands.

Another friend told me, in outraged tones, that somebody had cancelled a dinner arrangement on the day ‘by text message!’ At first, I was sympathetic. Then, I found out that my friend had texted to confirm in the first place.

She’d unwittingly given her guest the perfect escape route.

And yet, and yet. Maybe I’m not comparing like with like. If in the good old notelet days I’d received 20 letters a day and the phone rang constantly, I’d probably have offended somebody through neglect.

Perhaps it’s the sheer number of conduits that overwhelms us: too many demands on our time and attention, causing us to spread our manners wafer-thin across the surface of society.

It’s the end of an era. We’ve unwittingly allowed technology to redraw the boundaries of personal behaviour, and that’s a great pity. Nowadays, I seize the rare opportunity to write a thank-you note – or indeed any type of note.

But the days of crinkly paper, loopy handwriting and bubblegum are gone forever.