Letters Of Introduction
IN this age of universal travelling, letters of introduction fly about as freely as commercial paper, and sometimes with equally disastrous results. If one is going to England, the Continent, or even to our own Pacific Coast, it is as necessary to have these documents, in order to see anything of social life, as it is to have a letter of credit to pay one's hotel bills. Hence selfish or thoughtless people importune their friends to give them letters, and the friends, in a moment of weakness or carelessness, write letters of introduction when they have really no right to do so.
There are two points which should be very carefully considered before giving letters, and these are - first, has one a right to do so; and second, will the introduction be agreeable to both parties? To relatives, intimate friends, those whom one has received and entertained in one's own house or country, and to those who expressly give one leave to do so, one may certainly send letters introducing other friends. But because people have been polite and kind to us, because they have received and entertained us, this gives us no right whatever to call for further favors from them. This ought to be as clear as day, one would think; and yet our countrymen, misled probably by the cordiality of their English hosts, sometimes err in making such requests.
Thus a distinguished American, Mr. —, once met on his own doorsteps the Englishman to whom he (Mr. ) was bringing a letter of introduction. The latter read it, and with true British rudeness tore it up before the face of the bearer, saying, " This person has no right to send letters to me! " He added, however, with true British hospitality, that he was exceedingly glad to make the distinguished man's acquaintance for his own sake, and treated him with just as much courtesy and consideration - after that first dreadful act — as if he had brought the most powerful letters of recommendation. It is when one meets with such little annoyances as this, that one realizes the value of knowing and obeying the laws of etiquette. The silken strands of their network are usually invisible, and are so loosely drawn that we feel no pressure from them; but when they do come to light, when they do become strained, we find they can cut and gall very deeply.
Even where one has a right, however, to give letters of introduction, one should use it very carefully, remembering that their acceptance entails a hospitality that may be burdensome to one's friend, and also that two people will not necessarily be congenial to each other because they both happen to be friends of a third person.
The most approved way to deliver a letter of introduction is to leave it with one's card, not asking, however, to see the person to whom it is addressed. This rule is not always clearly understood in the United States. Two English ladies who were staying in New York once came in their carriage to leave a letter of introduction with their cards, according to strict etiquette. The New York ladies to whom the letter was addressed, responded very properly by calling on the British dames and inviting them to lunch. What was the horror of the latter, however, when their new acquaintances, meaning to be particularly polite, said that they were so very sorry not to have seen the English ladies when the latter called! Of course the English ladies had not intended making any call beyond the formal card-leaving.
The reason of the rule is very obvious. To deliver a letter of introduction in person, and wait below while it is read, like a tradesman with a bill or a servant with a recommendation, certainly does not put one in a very dignified position. It also in a measure compels the recipient of the letter to see you whether he wishes to do so or not. Where you wish to see him on business, it is proper to wait and see whether he will be able to receive you.
If a gentleman brings a letter of introduction to a lady, he may also, if he pleases, send up his card and ask whether it will be convenient for her to receive him.
If one is unable to leave a letter of introduction in person, one should send it by messenger if possible, if not by post, enclosing a card with one's address.
When one calls in acknowledgment of cards left with a letter of introduction, it is necessary to go in if the lady or gentleman, as the case may be, is at home. Nor are all the duties of politeness incumbent on the person alone to whom the letter is addressed. The per-son introduced should also take great pains to receive
letter-visitors," when they call upon him, with cordiality and politeness, instead of imitating the conduct of one distinguished Englishman in this country, who took out of his pocket a list of people to whom he had brought letters of introduction and ran it over in the presence of his visitor, saying, " Smith, Smith, Smith, - let me see where that name is on my list! "
While it is extremely desirable to be furnished with a number of letters of introduction when one is about to go to Europe, it is nevertheless highly indelicate to ask mere acquaintances for these social passports. Not only would this be asking a favor where one had no right to do so, but it would also be putting the acquaintance in an awkward dilemma. If he were good-natured he would not wish to disoblige the person who had made the request; neither would he wish to introduce to his friends some one about whom he knew very little, and who might be extremely uncongenial to them. It is rash to give letters unless to people whom one knows well, or at least knows all about; and it is especially rash to give letters to foreigners, unless they can " read their title clear " beyond any doubt or peradventure.
Letters of introduction should always be left unsealed. They should be brief, giving the full name and the residence of the person introduced, but avoiding a multitude of complimentary phrases. A modest man will dislike to deliver a letter containing a high-sounding panegyric on himself.
It is usually sufficient to say that Mr. C. T. Brooks of Sheffield is a friend of the writer, that any attention which it may be convenient to show him will be a personal favor, and that one has no doubt the acquaintance thus begun will be mutually agreeable to both parties. On receiving such a letter one should call promptly, in a day, if possible. It is also necessary to show a new acquaintance whatever attentions are in one's power, — to invite him to dinner, enter his name at one's club, or at least take him to the theatre, or show him about the city or place in which one lives.
It is kind also to ask what he especially desires to see, and to put him in the way of seeing it, and of meeting people who can assist him, if he has special plans of business or pleasure to carry out. The person introduced should of course make a return visit, calling within a week after any entertainment to which he is asked, or in acknowledgment of other hospitality shown him.
One may write on one's visiting-card " Introducing Mrs. Zed," and give it to a friend. The person to whom Mrs. Zed presents it, need not extend any social attentions to the bearer.
As the steel pen drove out its gentle brother the quill, so it in turn is being driven out by the telegraph wire, the type-writer, and the thousand other novel agencies which are constantly springing up in our midst as if by magic. People do not have time in this busy age to write letters, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The telegraph wire is such a convenient medium for letting one's friends know of one's well-being, that people of means do not hesitate to use it daily, instead of writing to their families; while for business communications, the type-writer saves the busy man from the drudgery of handling the pen. The telephone too has become one of the necessities of modern life. Probably the most luxurious method is that of using a phonograph to take down the golden utterances of a merchant prince, whose words, however worthless to posterity, have a momentous market value altogether beyond the conception of a mere outsider.
Steam is too slow a medium for conveying our thoughts in these days. We feel about it much as Charles Lamb did in regard to writing letters to his friend in Australia, — letters which would be many months old ere they could reach their destination. With playful wit he shows the folly of sending such communications, of exporting such stale news; and the modern world finds six days to be as long and tedious as he found six months!
Still, though we are too impatient either to write or read the long and courtly letters of Our grandparents' days, we do write a great many notes of one sort and another, and in some respects we are more critical about those we receive than were our forefathers. We insist that our correspondents shall spell correctly, that they shall write handsome or at least fair hands, and that they shall write straight. In looking over old manuscripts, one is struck with the school-boy appearance of the chirography, and with the almost more than school-boy quaintness of spelling. People certainly write much better than they did fifty or a hundred years ago. We have improved in the manner, if not in the matter of our communications.
It has been said elsewhere in this volume that to use ruled paper for writing invitations is considered very bad form. Ruled paper should be kept for business communications only. Those who have not learned to write straight must content themselves with using lines under their paper.
The shape and color of note-paper are so constantly changing and shifting, that it is hard to lay down any lasting rules in regard to styles. But it is always safe to choose plain, substantial paper, either white or of some light tint, and to avoid bright or striking colors, eccentric shapes, etc. Perfectly plain thick white paper of good quality never goes out of fashion. Rather small note-paper of the best quality should be used for writing and answering invitations. Monograms are again somewhat in favor after a long period of disuse. An excellent and popular fashion is to have one's address — in colored or black letters — engraved at the head of one's note-paper. People who live in the country often put in addition, the express, telephone and telegraph addresses, with the name of the railroad station. The address and date should always be put either at the beginning or at the end of a letter. For notes, the latter is usually preferred. It is better, in dating, to use both the day of the week and the day of the month, though for a note the day of the week is usually sufficient. In a letter, the date of the year is given; in a note, it is not. The new business method of dating, whereby the name of the month is omitted and its number substituted is surely a most senseless innovation. " 7—11—12 " may mean either the seventh day of the eleventh month, or the eleventh day of the seventh month. At best, this mode gives people the trouble of calculating the number of the month; they do not always remember, unless they stop to think, that October for instance is the tenth month, and not the eighth, as its name implies.
A commercial or clerk-like hand is not a desirable one to cultivate; not only does it smack too much of the counting-room, but it is too precise and formal, too much lacking in all originality and spontaneity. While every one should be carefully trained to write a good hand — handsome, even and legible — he should be trained to write his own hand, and not simply to imitate some one's else. It is sometimes amusing to read the advertisements of certain wonderful systems of instruction in writing, and to note the specimens written " before " and " after " instruction.. To many of us it would seem that a deterioration had taken place in the latter, and a good honest individual handwriting, sometimes a handsome one, changed to a meaningless scroll-bedecked copperplate script.
Lord Chesterfield says in his letters to his son: " I do not desire you to write a stiff, formal hand, like that of a school-master, but a genteel, legible and liberal character." Flourishes in a signature, except for a writing-master or a really great man, seem pretentious and out of place.
The extremely pointed English or Italian character, so much in vogue a few years ago, is now less fashionable than it was, which is surely a subject for thankfulness, as this special variety of ladies' handwriting is exceedingly illegible.
Great care should always be taken to fold and direct a letter neatly, and to put on the stamp evenly, in the proper corner. Would that we could use stamped envelopes! But Dame Fashion excludes these from genteel correspondence, because they are cheap, and perhaps seem careless. Fashion is a very exacting taskmistress, and usually expects us to choose the more difficult path, where two lie open. In folding a letter, care should always be taken to fold it right side up; that is, so that the person who receives it shall not have to turn it, after taking it out of the envelope, in order to read it.
Sealing-wax, the use of which had almost died out in this country, has taken a new hold on public favor, and among the elegant appointments of a writing desk, sealing wax and taper are now to be reckoned. Mucilage is preferred by most people however, unless they are writing very ceremonious notes or letters. No one should use wax who cannot make an even, handsome, clearly-marked seal; because a slovenly one looks much worse than none.
A new method of writing is to write on the first and fourth sides of a sheet, and then opening it, and turning it the other way, to write across the third and second sides continuously. Business letters are written on one side of the paper only.
" My dear Mr. Lemprière," or " Dear Mr. Lem prière," which is the more formal? This is a question that is sometimes asked; but whatever arguments may be used in favor of either form of address in the abstract, ordinary custom, in this country at least, has adopted " My dear Mr. " as the usual form for beginning a letter: hence when the " My" is dropped, greater familiarity is implied, because less ceremony is used. If one wishes to be still more formal, it is very easy to be so.
Mr. John Watkins, or John Watkins, Esq.
55 Broadway, New York.
My dear Sir, or Dear Sir,
would be the proper way to begin a letter in such a case. A business letter should always include the name and address of one's correspondent. These are sometimes put at the end of the letter, instead of at the beginning, as for instance
To Mrs. Elinor Watkins
Rahway, New Jersey.
An excellent English authority says, " An unmarried lady cannot address a gentleman as 'My dear Sir,' unless she is very old, and he too. It should be ' Dear Sir.' " It is rather difficult to say which is the more familiar of these two forms, and the question which of them should be used seems of very little importance, since bath are decidedly formal. Formal letters to clergymen begin " Reverend and dear Sir."
The signature should always include the full name, or the last name with the initials. Nicknames, such as " Carrie," " Bessie," should never be signed to any letters save those written to relatives or intimate friends. The present fashion abhors abbreviations and dictates the writing out of the entire name, as — Margaret Jones Thompson. Initials may be used however in writing business letters, letters to servants, etc. It is not considered allowable to sign one's name as " Mrs. R. V. Bacon," or " Miss A. B. Bacon." If it is desirable to let one's correspondent know by what title he is to address one, it is very easily done by inserting this formula : " Please address Mrs, R. V. Bacon. A woman of business once signed her name thus: " (Miss) Brooks of Sheffield," and her correspondent, taking the Miss " as a gentle hint, gallantly answered her with an offer of marriage!
The signature should correspond with the tone of a letter. " Yours with much regard," " With kind regards believe me yours cordially," are friendly, but still somewhat ceremonious. "Yours truly," " Yours very truly," " Sincerely yours," " Very sincerely yours," "Faithfully yours," "Cordially yours," " Affectionately yours," — this list shows a sliding scale from most to least formal. " Yours respectfully " is only used for business letters, or in writing to a , superior - either in age or position. " Yours truly," and " Very truly yours " are also reserved for business letters. " Your obedient servant " once much used in formal and business letters, is always dignified and courteous.
The old custom was to write to servants or trades-people in the third person. It is sometimes done now, but except for a very short communication it is an undesirable form, because awkward and indirect; besides, it is undemocratic.
Abbreviations of words should not be used in writing: such as " & " for " and," " wh " for " which," etc. So much fun has been made of women's letters on account of their frequent underlinings and inevitable postscripts, that it is not necessary to dwell on these points. It certainly destroys all the force of italics to use them constantly, besides giving a letter a very school-girlish tone; and while a postscript is very good for its proper purpose, that is, for adding something which has been forgotten, it is certainly not the right place to put the most important matter in the whole letter, as if one were afraid or ashamed to speak out until the last moment.
Many people, in dating a note or addressing an envelope, now write the number in full — as February twenty-fourth, or Thirteen West Seventh Street. According to the present fashion, the date of an entertainment is also given in full, in the invitation. It looks affected, however, to write the year out in this way.
A letter should never be crossed. In these days when note-paper and postage are both cheap it is inexcusable for any one to write across the paper, thus trying to the uttermost both the eyesight and patience of a friend. Figures should not be used except in designating dates or giving the number of a house and street -
A note written in the third parson must of course never be signed. Thus, to write
Mrs.---- will call on Wednesday, at Mr. -- 's store, and select a carpet. Yours truly, Mrs.--
would be simply barbarous. A note written in the third person must so continue all through. " Mr. Smith accepts with pleasure your kind invitation " is inadmissible. " Mr. Smith accepts with pleasure Mrs. Brown's kind invitation, etc.," would be a correct formula.
People who are in mourning generally use black-edged note-paper, although some persons dislike and never use it. All matters connected with mourning ought to be left to the judgment and feelings of the mourner. It is cruel to enhance sorrow by binding it around with the silken serpent of etiquette.
Where black-edged paper is used the border should vary in depth according to the length of time the writer has been in mourning, and the nearness of the relative mourned. Very broad mourning borders certainly seem affected as well as gloomy. The auto-graph letter of condolence which Queen Victoria sent to Mrs. Lincoln when the President was assassinated was written on note-paper with a black border nearly an inch deep!
A letter to a married lady should always be directed with her husband's name or initials, and not her own: thus, " Mrs. James Brookes Nevins," or " Mrs. J. B. Nevins." One cannot write " Mrs. Rev. Thomas Brookes," or "Mrs. Dr. Simeon Thomas. It is proper, however, to write "Rev. and Mrs. Thomas Brookes," or " Dr. and Mrs. Simeon Thomas." Of course where the lady is a minister of the Gospel or a Doctor of Medicine, in propria persona, it is quite right to give her her title, "Rev. Olympia Brown," or "Dr. Emma News." In addressing a letter to a gentleman, custom pre-scribes that " Esq." shall be added after his name unless he has some other title, as " Dr.," " Rev.," etc. Some people add Esq. after Junior as " C. B. Roe, Jr., Esq.; " others omit it. In directing notes of invitation " Mr." should be used, and not " Esq."
Although it has been mentioned elsewhere in this volume, it is proper to repeat here that great care should be taken to write numbers, dates and proper names with distinctness. In the case of ordinary words the context will often furnish some clue whereby they may be guessed; but in the case of a proper name perhaps one that is entirely unknown to the recipient of the letter there is nothing to assist him in deciphering it.
While it would not be fitting, in writing " the letter of the period," to imitate the diffusiveness of the classic letter-writers either of antiquity or of comparatively modern times, one might with advantage copy their graceful style, and take from them many hints as to what should and what should not find place in a letter that is meant to give pleasure. Letters that are intended to annoy or irritate the recipient angry letters — would much better not be written, on every one's account. The minute descriptions of Madame de Sévigné, whereby she gave " airy nothings a local habitation and a name," are still charming reading after two centuries have elapsed; but not even to a friend in the country would one think now a-days of elaborating trifles at such length, even if one possessed the grace and imagination of this celebrated letter-writer.
Terseness and that brevity which is the soul of wit are essential to the composition of a modern epistle; and if a picture is to be drawn it must be photographed by the instantaneous process, not slowly worked out with the graver's tools. And yet, no brusqueness must find place in a letter. One must be concise, but always courteous and never curt. Few people can trust themselves to write anything longer than a short note when in great haste; one is so apt, if not to make a mistake, at least to say something carelessly, or to leave something unsaid which if said would very essentially modify the tone and meaning of the whole. Especially is this the case where one is writing anything personal; great care should be taken to express one's meaning clearly, and to remember that the written word is so much more formal than the spoken word, that what would be passed over as a jest in the latter seems like reproof in the former. In fact, it is a very dangerous matter to find fault with people on paper; misconceptions so easily arise which in conversation would be set right in two minutes; and the receiver of the letter is sure to imagine that the writer means twice as much as he says, and the former therefore proportionately magnifies what is actually said. Hence, if one must write a fault-finding letter, it is only safe to express about a fourth as much as one feels. Lawyers say that the fondness of mankind for writing letters, and getting themselves into no end of trouble by their folly in so doing, is perfectly extraordinary. A conscientious lawyer will beg and pray his client to do anything rather than write a letter. Litera scripta manet, as astute politicians and diplomats well know. Avoid the pen as you would the Devil, when you are angry; and if you must commit follies, don't put them down on paper.
If a letter is intended to give pleasure it must not be simply an echo of the letter to which it is an answer. While it is proper to make short comments on what has been written to you, these are generally not of special interest to your correspondent, who wants usually to hear about what is going on at your end of the line, for he knows already what is happening at his own. Thus one receives some charmingly written and gracefully expressed letters, which mean and say absolutely nothing! Egotism — the other extreme - is also to be avoided in a letter, especially complaining egotism. What a terrible warning are the letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle against growling on paper ! And what a contrast to them are the letters of the Carlyle-Emerson correspondence, where the real nobility of thought and character of these two great men stands out in such plain relief! How little did Mrs. Carlyle imagine that the grumblings by which she occasionally relieved her heart and temper were, after her death, to prejudice many minds against the husband who truly and deeply loved her! How different might all have been if she had told him frankly of her discontents, instead of writing them to other people, for the world to gossip over in the years to come!
The letters of the younger Pliny show a cheerful, amiable disposition, giving us at the same time that innocent gossip in which the human mind ever de-lights, and many interesting pictures of the manners of his day. He is not a bad model for a correspondent, especially as his letters are not usually long.
A letter should be cheerful in tone, and it should not be written unless one has something to say. If a person is obliged to write and has nothing to say, he should not go on saying it for several pages.
A brief but courteous note is far pleasanter to receive than a long-drawn-out letter over which the writer has labored long and painfully. It is a good rule always to read over letters before sending them. Copying is to be deprecated, as it is apt to make letters stiff and formal. It is necessary, however, for those people who have difficulty in expressing themselves on paper, and who therefore are obliged to make corrections.
One should be very careful not to write familiarly to people whom one does not know well, to those who are much older, or to people who hold a high position in the world. A letter may be entirely courteous and dignified, and yet not at all familiar. Indeed, it shows a want of self-respect to attempt familiarity where one has no right to do so, and where it may be resented. In writing to friends and intimates it is of course proper to adopt a very different tone, and not to offend them by what they would rightly consider stiffness; though the' same form of words might be entirely proper and courteous if addressed to a comparative stranger.
Jesting in letters is rather a dangerous matter, since such jokes are often misunderstood, and being taken in earnest often cause much annoyance and even unhappiness. It is sometimes said of a person who is skilful in writing letters whereof the tone is easy and conversational, " He writes just as he speaks." A little observation, however, will generally bring out the fact that the writer is possessed of the ors Mare artem, just as the realistic actor is; the skilful letter-writer has the art of making his letters appear as if they were " frozen conversation," but the tinkling ice-crystals are not the result of simple congelation: say, rather, they are the work of a skilful confectioner, who can make his ice at any time of year.
There should always be more formality in the written than in the spoken word; even the most familiar letter should be worded and expressed with greater care, with more grammatical exactness, and with greater rhetorical precision, than is called for in ordinary speech. It seems a much easier thing to write a good letter than it really is; just as the flowing, easy and graceful style of some authors impresses the reader with the feeling that he' himself, or any one, could write like that! But a brief trial will speedily convince him that he cannot.
Slang should not find a place even in the most familiar letters. Care also should be taken to avoid mixing up pronouns, and making " he," " she, " it," etc., refer first to one person or thing and then to another in the same sentence. We need several new pronouns in English, as our language is sadly deficient in them. The man who should successfully invent or derive from classic tongues some new pronouns would deserve the gratitude of the whole English-speaking race. As a matter of fact, he would be sent either to a lunatic asylum or a dungeon cell. We can invent dudes and discover planets, but the lost pronouns will never more be found! And yet to what subterfuges and circumlocutions is the writer not driven for the want of an equivalent to " he," " him," etc., and for a singular form of " they " which should be of common gender ! " John met Mr. J-; he asked him whether he would not go and take a drive in his new dog-cart." But instances of this painful nature need not be cited, as they are so common.
After making a visit at a friend's house one should always write a note or letter acknowledging the kindness and hospitality of host or hostess. These bread-and-butter letters should be written promptly, within a week at the very latest. When answering even a familiar note of invitation, one should be very careful to do so courteously as well as promptly, wording the answer as much like the invitation as possible. The day and for a dinner or lunch the hour also — should be repeated, so as to be sure that there is no mistake; as for instance, —
My dear Mrs. Jones,
It will give me much pleasure to lunch with you on Thursday next at half-past one o'clock. With kind regards, believe me Cordially yours,
Delia H. Jenckes. Thirteen Chestnut Street,
A written invitation must never receive a verbal answer, but always a written one. To send an answer by word of mouth, except where one has been invited in the same way, is extremely impolite. One must never send a visiting card with "regrets " written on it. To do so would be very bad form. Invitations must be answered on note-paper, and not on visiting cards. The custom of writing " Present " or "Addressed " on a letter which is to be delivered by a private messenger has gone out of fashion. The same is true of the superscriptions Kindness of Mr. Smith," " Favored by Mr. Smith," etc. It suffices to direct such a Ietter to the street and number only, omitting the name of the city or town, or with the name of the gentleman's place, if he lives in the country. Thus: Mrs. James Meredith, Beaulieu.
( Originally Published 1911 )
Conversation In Society
On Voice, Language And Accent
Gestures And Carriage
Letters Of Introduction
Dress And Customs Appropriate To Mourning
Host And Guest
Country Manners And Hospitality
In The Street And In Public Places
Read More Articles About: Social Customs