Oh, Mary Beard! Everyone’s favourite classicist.
She perceptively notes that old-fashioned correspondence offered subtle gradations in formality, which we haven’t quite got right with electronic mail. Beard finds e-mail inappropriately informal, strangely unpersuasive, often annoying, not conducive to genuine expressions of thanks.
Writing a letter also involved a helpful cooling-off period because you had to make the effort to find a stamp and then post your letter; this gave time for second thoughts about sending it at all.
To save her from those late-night missives sent after one glass too many, Beard wishes her laptop had a function that blocked sending anything after 11 pm, followed up by an ‘Are you sure?’ message in the morning, or a built-in breathalyser.
Like Professor Beard, I tend to dread receiving that message that opens with ‘I hope this e-mail finds you well’.
Not least because it’s usually from someone I don’t know who wants to sell me something.
But mostly because it’s such a hackneyed, insincere and vapid intro.
Really, have you nothing better to offer than this dreadful platitude? Cut to the chase and tell me what you want.
As it turns out, however, it’s not much different from the SVBEV (or SVBEEV) used as as an opener by writers of letters in ancient Rome, which stood for Si vales bene est[ego] valeo (‘If you’re OK, that’s good; I am too’).
Mary asks, are the old clichés the best clichés?
I actually think not — they’re all terrible and to be avoided; but do listen to Professor Beard on the etiquette of e-mail, letter-writing and telegrams: