Lost art of the unsent angry letter

WHENEVER Abraham Lincoln felt the urge to tell someone off, he would compose a "hot letter". He would pile all of his anger into a note, "put it aside until his emotions cooled down, and then write: 'Never sent. Never signed'."

Lincoln was hardly unique. Among public figures who need to think twice about their choice of words, the unsent angry letter has a venerable tradition.

Its purpose is twofold. It serves as a type of emotional catharsis, a way to let it all out without the repercussions of true engagement. And it acts as a strategic catharsis, an exercise in saying what you really think, which Mark Twain (himself a notable non-sender of correspondence) believed provided "unallowable frankness and freedom".

Harry Truman once almost told the US treasurer: "I don't think that the financial adviser of God himself would be able to understand what the financial position of the government of the United States is, by reading your statement." In 1922, Winston Churchill nearly warned then Prime Minister David Lloyd George that when it came to Iraq, "we are paying eight million a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having".

Twain all but chastised Russians for being too passive when it came to the czar's abuses, writing: "Apparently, none of them can bear to think of losing the present hell entirely, they merely want the temperature cooled down a little."

But while it may be the unsent mail of politicians and writers that is saved for posterity, that does not mean they have a monopoly on the practice. Lovers carry on impassioned correspondence that the beloved never sees; family members vent their mutual frustrations. We rail against the imbecile who elbowed past us in the subway.

When I am working on an article with an editor, I have a habit of using the "track changes" feature in Microsoft Word for writing retorts to suggested editorial changes. I then cool off and promptly delete the comments - and, usually, make the changes.

We may have switched the format from paper to screen, but the process is largely the same. You feel angry. And you construct a retort - only to find yourself thinking better of taking it any further. Emotions cooled, you proceed in a more reasonable, and reasoned, fashion. It is the opposite of the glib rejoinder that you think of just a bit too late and never quite get to say.

But in other, perhaps more fundamental, respects, the art of the unsent angry letter has changed beyond recognition in the world of social media. For one thing, the Internet has made the enterprise far more public.

Truman, Lincoln and Churchill would file their unsent correspondence. No one outside their inner circle would read what they had written. Now, we have the option of writing what should have been our unsent words for all the world to see. There are threads on reddit and many a website devoted to those notes you would send if only you were braver.

A tweet about "that person", a post about "restaurant employees who should know better"; you put in just enough detail to make the insinuation fairly obvious, but not enough that, if caught, you could not deny it. It is public shaming with an escape hatch.

Does knowing that we can expect a collective response to our indignation make it more satisfying? Not really. Though we create a safety net, we may end up tangled all the same. We have more avenues to express immediate displeasure than ever before, and may thus find ourselves more likely to hit send or tweet when we would have done better to hit save or delete.

The ease of venting drowns out the possibility of recanting, and the speed of it all prevents a deeper consideration of what exactly we should say and why, precisely, we should say it.

When Lincoln wanted to voice his displeasure, he had to find a secretary or, at least, a pen. That process alone was a way of exercising self-control - twice over. It allowed him not only to express his thoughts in private, but also to determine which was which: The anger that should be voiced versus the anger that should be kept quiet.

Now, we need only click a reply button. And in the heat of the moment, we find the line between an appropriate response and one that needs a cooling-off period blurring. We toss out our reflexive anger, publicly, without the private buffer that once would have let us separate what needed to be said from what needed only to be felt. It is especially true when we see similarly angry commentary from others. Our own fury begins to feel more socially appropriate.

We may also feel less satisfied. Because the angry e-mail (or tweet or text or whatnot) takes so much less effort to compose than a pen-and-paper letter, it may, in the end, offer us a less cathartic experience, in just the same way that pressing the end call button on your cellphone will never be quite the same as slamming down an old-fashioned receiver.

Perhaps that is why there is so much vitriol online, so many anonymous, bitter comments, imprudent tweets and messy posts. Because creating them is less cathartic, you feel the need to do it more often. When your emotions never quite cool, they keep coming out in other ways.


The writer is the author of Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes.