Why I Miss ‘You’ve Got Mail’
Wanted: A resurgence of the late-’90s equivalent of handwritten letters.
I try to check my inclination to wallow in nostalgia, but lately, I’ve been longing for the days when the 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com You’ve Got Mail wasn’t such a relic from another place and time.
I don’t necessarily want to return to 1998. I’m pretty cool living in 2018. Still, looking back at the year that brought us Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, R.E.M.’s Up, and Whitney Houston’s My Love Is Your Love from the point of view that’s two decades later, I can see clearly now how good life was then.
I was dating a lovely guy at the time (he fell asleep next to me in the Long Island cinema where we saw You’ve Got Mail), and that was the year I wrote my first cover story for People magazine (on Celine Dion, who, until that recent Deadpool 2 video, was as much of a 2018 anachronism as You’ve Got Mail AND “You’ve got mail”) and was promoted from Writer-Reporter to Staff Writer (on my birthday!).
I even loved my studio apartment on West 34th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues in New York City. It was perhaps the one and only time in my adult life when I was living the perfect storm of contentedness: great job, great relationship, great place.
Now, 20 years later, one of the things I miss most about those good old days is neither the job, nor the relationship, nor the place. In fact, I don’t really miss any of those things at all. After the soundtrack to those best days of my life, what I miss most about 1998 and the years in its vicinity is the regular arrival of new emails in my inbox — at work, via Hotmail, even occasionally through Yahoo! Mail and, yes, AOL Mail.
I’m not talking spam, bill notices, or notifications about activity elsewhere online (the latter two of which wouldn’t start cluttering things up until the next decade). I’m talking the late-’90s/early noughties equivalent of an old-fashioned handwritten letter. Remember the way we used to communicate with people far away post-snail mail — before social media, texting, and poor-to-middling-quality video calls replaced in-depth one-on-one personal communication?
I never used AOL much, so I rarely actually heard the words “You’ve Got Mail,” but just opening any inbox and seeing that I did indeed have mail, courtesy of someone I was actually happy to hear from, was everything. Thankfully, I have a few good friends — and a mother — who continue to communicate with me from a distance 1998-style. They remind me of all the reasons why online conversations were so much better way back then.
1. We had more control over how we came across.
As a writer and editor, I know how to polish a sentence until it’s practically glistening. I’ve always been more comfortable with the written word than the spoken word, which is probably why emails were preferable to phone calls when people used to make the latter. They give you the opportunity to shape your thoughts and figure out exactly what you want to say before you say it.
If you have the sort of complex ideas that exceed the Twitter limit, email is still the best way to share them. I’m hardly deterred by the fact that emails pretty much brought about Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 Presidential election and gave us POTUS Donald Trump. Mine are unlikely to ever become homepage news.
2. You don’t get a new notification for every sentence.
Apparently, people don’t think in paragraphs anymore. How else to explain Facebook messages that read more like a series of tweets?
I’ve never been the guy who’s daunted by big blocks of text if the information it contains is compelling and well-written. I’d much rather sit and process a chunk of words that arrive all at once than field an influx of one-sentence bits on Facebook Messenger, each one leaving me waiting, anticipating what’s coming next.
Even if I were a fan of suspense in communication, I’d much prefer one spoiler alert, a notification that the whole story is in my inbox, than a series of them announcing one bite-sized sequel after another. Binge-watching an entire season of a TV show is so much better than consuming it week to week, one cliffhanger after another. I prefer my written communication in volumes, too.
3. You can respond whenever you want to.
The great thing about email is that unlike with Facebook Messenger, where senders know as soon as you’ve read a message, you can pretend you haven’t had time to check your email until you have time to respond or until you want to respond. (Oh, to go back to those pre-Messenger days when you could exchange wordy, complicated, multi-paragraph messages via Facebook without fear of accidentally sending one before you’ve had a chance to edit it.)
And there are benefits in reverse, too. We can shrug off an unanswered text with “They must be busy” or “Maybe they haven’t had a chance to read it yet” for only so long. Eventually, it’s obvious they’re ignoring you — or worse — full-on ghosting you. With email, you can pretend they haven’t gotten around to reading it yet for as long as denial maintains your mental equilibrium.
4. You don’t have to make up lame excuses why you have to go.
Email allows you to control every aspect of the your side of the conversation, including how you exit. And you can exit and re-enter as many times as you want to over as long a period as you need until you’ve gotten every paragraph just right.
5. With email, neither side is privy to negative body language and cues or bad hair days.
Go ahead and sigh or roll your eyes. No-one is watching or listening. And while video chats are nowhere near as terrifying as they seemed back when they were a future fantasy on The Jetsons, I still enjoy the option of being able to communicate with people while I’m looking my worst without anyone knowing how hideous I look.
Maybe one day potential employers in remote locations will see things my way and replace Skype interviews with email interviews, during which I can dress way down and research the answers to tough and/or irrelevant questions. I have no doubt I’d be able to rock one of those with ease since I wouldn’t be wondering if the camera and the lighting are capturing me at my most complimentary angles.
6. It gives you something to look forward to.
You can savor an email and/or save it for later. With texts and IM communication, the pleasures are far more fleeting. Since they’re likely to just be one or two sentences — or as number two above makes clear, a series of one or two sentences — there’s nothing to tuck away and save for later, like the next chapter of an engrossing book.
7. Emails give engagement more depth.
You can ponder the meaning of life, diving as deep as you dare to. You’re free to introduce complex ideas and potentially controversial ones without having to worry about being interrupted or contradicted mid-thought.
Like number three, benefits flow in both directions. Your opponent — er, the person you’re talking to — also gets to present ideas in full, and you have to hear him or her out completely before offering your own rebuttal.
Via email, a soon-to-be ex can also spend more time explaining why he or she is dumping you, and unlike a phone call, you get to relive it over and over until you finally delete it, which, let’s face it, the masochist in all of us always wants to do.
My ex Kevin broke up with me by email while I was on holiday in Rio. Even though it hurt like hell at the time, especially since he gave me the brush-off the morning after I’d been robbed, I’m still thankful he didn’t do it by phone or wait to do it in person after I got back. I was able to turn my getaway into a rebound vacation without anyone racking up long-distance charges.
And there’s another bright side. A break-up email might hurt harder and for longer than a simple “Goodbye” text or instant message, but at least it proves your latest ex cared enough to sit down and write.