Email vs. Letters

Copyright 1998, 2000 Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

When my mother-in-law was learning how to use email, she would get quite frustrated. Upon reflection, I decided that was perfectly understandable. Imagine trying to learn to write a letter for the first time if you were from somewhere so remote that you didn't have any background with the tools...


Teacher: Ok, to write a letter, the first thing you need is a piece of paper and a pen.

Novice: What are those?

Teacher: Paper is flat stuff that is made from tree pulp, sort of like a very small blackboard. Pens are sticks that write, sort of like chalk but smaller and in darker colors.

Novice: Is this paper?

Teacher: Ah, yes, that is paper. But that's my paycheck -- you don't want to write a letter on that.

Novice: Why not?

Teacher: Well, it's a representation of money that I .. uh, never mind. Just don't write on that. Look, here's a piece of paper that you can write on.

Novice: What about a pen?

Teacher: Pens are like little sticks. Do you see anything on this desk that looks like a little stick? Uh, no, that's a ruler. Rulers are for measuring things. Uh, no, that's a toothpick, it's for cleaning teeth, I don't know why it's on my desk. Look, here's a pen.

Novice: That doesn't look like a little stick! It's grey. Little sticks are brown.

Teacher: I meant "little stick" metaphorically. Just use this. Uh, you have to take the cap off first. Ok, now write "Dear Mom" on the paper. Wait, you want to rotate the paper so that the short side is at the top and the long side comes towards you.

Novice: Why?

Teacher: Um, that's just how it's done. I suppose you could do it the other way, but it would look a little funny. Ok, now write "Dear Mom" on the -- oh, no, at the top. Well, never mind, we can just throw this one away and start over. That's right, "Dear Mom" at the top. Then the rest of the letter.

Novice: Ok, I've finished the letter! Can we go hunting now?

Teacher: Hang on, you aren't really done. I mean, you are done with the letter, but now you have to send it. You need to put the letter in an envelope next. An envelope is a piece of paper that is all folded up to hide and protect the letter. Uh, no, put my paycheck down, we don't want to fold it into an envelope.

Novice: Wouldn't that work?

Teacher: Well, yeah, it would work, but it isn't the best way to do it, and besides, I want to keep my paycheck. Look, just put your letter into this envelope here.

Novice: It won't fit.

Teacher: Yeah, you have to fold it first. Um, it will work better if you fold it into thirds. No, the other way. There you go, now put it in the envelope. Good. Now seal the envelope by licking the paper here and folding it over.

Novice: You must be joking!

Teacher: No, really, that's how you seal the envelope. Look, if you don't want to lick it, you could get a little sponge and dish of water and use the sponge to wet the envelope flap.

Novice: I'll just go dunk it in the creek then.

Teacher: NO! Sorry, I didn't mean to yell. Look, I'll show you, I will lick it for you. See? Easy.

Novice: Ok, now can we go hunting?

Teacher: No, not yet, we still need to address the mail so that the postman knows who should get the envelope. So on the envelope, write your mom's name - nonono over here. Well, never mind, we can get a new envelope for it. I'll take it out of the old one for you. Ok, here's a new envelope for you, see if you can put it in - that's good - and seal it.

Novice: Ow! I cut my tongue!

Teacher: Ooops. It does take a little getting used to. Don't worry; you just need a little practice.

Ok, now write your mom's name right here. Good! Ok, now we need to look up her address in the address book. This is my address book, and you'll have to make your own address book and fill it in with addresses.

Novice: How will I know what people's addresses are?

Teacher: You'll just ask them for their address.

Novice: How can I ask them if I can't write to them?

Teacher: You have to ask them some other way, like when you see them in person.

Novice: Why can't I just get a big book with everybody's address in it?

Teacher: Well, there are five billion people in the world, so it would be an awfully big book, plus people move all the time, plus some people wouldn't want their address in the book. Look, trust me, it works. You'll get people's addresses. Ok, so underneath her name, write her address. Uh, you put the street address on its own line, then the city and state and ZIP code.

Novice: What's a ZIP code?

Teacher: Don't worry about it, just do it.

Novice: Hmmpf. It would be a lot easier if I could just put "Mom". Ok, it's addressed. NOW can we go hunting?

Teacher: Hold your horses. You need to put your return address in the upper left-hand corner of the envelope.

Novice: What's my return address?

Teacher: It's how people can contact you. Your landlord should have given you a piece of paper with your address on it. Yeah, that looks right, now copy that to the upper left corner. Upper LEFT corner. Good. Ack! My desk! Put the cap back on!

Novice: Huh?

Teacher: You have got to put the cap back on the pen so that the ink from the pen doesn't get all over everything. Ok, now we have to put a stamp on the envelope, which is a way of paying for the delivery. You need a 33-cent stamp. Never mind why. You need to put it in the upper right hand corner, no, right-side up - so the 33 is right-side up. No, it won't stay by itself, you have to lick it.

Novice: I'm not licking anything else, I cut my tongue last time.

Teacher: Oh, all right. I'll lick it for you this time. Tomorrow you can go buy a different kind of stamps that you don't have to lick.

Novice: How many different types of stamps are there?

Teacher: Well, there's stamps you lick and self-adhesive stamps, and different denominations of stamps, oh, and there are stamps from other countries but you can't use them.

Novice: Why not?

Teacher: Because our government doesn't recognize those stamps. And we can't use our stamps in other countries.

Novice: So do I have to use two different stamps if I send something to another country?

Teacher: No, there's an agreement with other countries that they will deliver mail with our stamps when they get there.

Novice: So why can't we use other countries' stamps inside our country?

Teacher: They just won't, leave it be.

Novice: Ok, I'm going hunting now.

Teacher: Just a minute, just a minute! How do you think the letter is going to get to your mother? Did you think it was just going to magically leap from the desk and get to her? We need to take it somewhere that the Post Office can find it.

Novice: How about under my pillow?

Teacher: Don't be smart with me, young man. We need to take it and either put it in the mailbox or take it down to the post office.

Novice: Isn't the mailbox where mail comes in?

Teacher: Yes, but the postman will take it out of the mailbox and take it down to the post office if it is already there.

Novice: Does that mean that if I don't take my incoming mail out of my mailbox by the time the mailman comes again, he'll take all my mail away?

Teacher: No, no, it doesn't work like that. Look, it just works, ok? Just go put it in the mailbox, I'm tired of arguing with you. Then go hunting or whatever, just leave me alone.

Novice: *Sigh* Letter-writing is hard.


In comparison to all we had to learn to write letters, email doesn't look so hard!

Copyright 1998, Kaitlin Duck Sherwood