It’s taken a fortnight of messages back and forth to arrange an afternoon meeting with my busy friend. Finally she’s pouring me a cup of tea in her over-decorated sitting room and we have each other’s undivided attention until the nanny returns with the children from the park in an hour.
Time is short so I skip the opening chit chat about plans for the summer holidays. I’ve always trusted her judgment and I have something important to tell her. It’s about Charles, I begin. I really don’t know what I’m going to do …
There’s a knock at the door and I close my mouth mid-sentence while she deals with the interruption. I take small sips of my tea feigning patience while she opens the envelope she has just been handed. Could she not have waited until I was gone?
Then with a little guilty look, the letter fluttering in her beautifully manicured hand, she jumps up. “Hold on,” she says, “I just have to answer this,” and before I can say a word she is scribbling a note at her writing desk by the window.
Sound familiar? That little scene I wrote for fun is set in London in the 1890s. Believe or not there were between six and 12 postal deliveries per day in the city at that time (depending on the area) which meant correspondents could exchange multiple letters within a single day.
What did they write about? The same things we do, I suppose. With such a high frequency of communication, the residents of Victorian London probably also wrote their fair share of banal messages along the lines of: “what are you wearing tonight?” or “can you pick up cough syrup on your way home?”
As a new smartphone user I am getting used to constant interruptions with SMS, email and social media notifications. I’m not sure I like the dependency that’s creeping in. When I’m out of earshot of my phone I automatically check the screen when I come back to make sure I haven’t missed anything.
If I hear the little chime from my bag when I’m with someone, I can’t let many minutes go by without checking the message. I try to resist the temptation to respond immediately but can’t say for sure that I haven’t occasionally asked a friend to hold on while I answered a message.
The expectation is there that we will respond to each other rapidly. Unanswered texts, direct messages and mails buzz around in the back of my mind like restless wasps. I’m afraid if I don’t answer promptly I might break communication law by forgetting to answer at all!
The Victorians loved their books of etiquette. Maybe it’s time someone wrote a survival guide for the smartphone era. Any takers?