The Shock of the Old: Royal Mail Versus Email

Is new really cracked up to be or is old better? Starting this week is the first of a series of posts on East of the M60.

For the first of a series of posts, I am inspired by both my personal experience and recent (analogue and digital era) interaction with a fellow creative. A fellow whom by coincidence happens to have similar architectural interests and the same horoscope.

In our first post under The Shock of the Old, we focus on the differences between Postman Pat and Postman POP3. In other words Email versus the Royal Mail.

The Royal Mail

Even in the internet age, there is still scope for a private or publicly owned postal network. In fact, the need is greater owing to increased use of parcel services. Not only the Royal Mail’s own but a clutch of privately owned rivals like Yodel and TNT. Internet shoppers are than familiar with the vagaries of Parcelforce et al, but many are just as likely to use email instead of the Royal Mail for personal correspondence.

But email seems ephemeral compared with a beautifully crafted letter. Hand written, stamped and fully addressed of course. A well written letter has a sense of permanence. It can be shared and passed around from person to person among friends and relatives.

Paradoxically, we seem to use written communication more than ever, yet most of this is digital. In other words, text messages, status updates on social networking sites, and electronic mail. The Royal Mail is used less and less for personal communication, owing to the immediacy of digital media. Another reason could be financial – 62p for a First Class stamp at present!


If you wish to write a personal missive, Email seems to be more popular. Instead of paper, this computer used for writing our blog entry; from a mobile phone; or a digital tablet. It is convenient; despatch and receipt is immediate. Sending pictures is a cinch in electronic form subject to connection speeds. Postage and packaging issues? Sorted, unless your recipient’s email client’s a bit sniffy about attachments.

Email forms part of our contact pages, online shopping transactions and a multitude of other activities. Also verification purposes if you wish to register for a website.

Where email triumphs over the Royal Mail in convenience, we lose something in terms of personal contact and intimacy. Friends and family still appreciate birthday and Christmas cards via post because the media is physical. A succession of 0s and 1s – i.e. a printed email lacks that, and can be seen by some as an afterthought.

Where the Royal Mail wins

To write a proper letter is pretty much a social thing. By eschewing the email or social networking site we support local business (or store chains if you wish) in the process of writing a letter. We go to a stationers to buy a decent notepad or a set of notelets. Sometimes our favoured shop sells postage stamps, and we may treat ourselves to a decent pen.

Along the way, we talk to people. We say to our fellow behind the Post Office counter how many stamps we need or the right weight for sending a parcel to Paris or Peckham. We talk to our friendly cashier at the checkout when purchasing our pristine pen or novel notelets. Above all, we keep people in work: not only shop workers, but also stationery designers. Plus we help our local Post Offices great and small.

I don’t write enough letters in the traditional sense myself thanks to digital technologies. If I’m writing a quick letter, I leave the printer alone and turn to the notepad. In the time and energy you have switched on your computer and printer, you could have written a short covering letter in the same time. The only downside of course is time, but a beautifully crafted letter on decent note paper is worth a good 2 – 3 days wait for the recipient.

Thanks to digital technology, there is one thing we have lost: the art of waiting. The joy of anticipation, the excitement of waiting for the postperson to deliver your letter. And having something physical to hold onto if the missive brings good news.

If an email doesn’t reach the person’s inbox, it may be lost in the spam filter. With the Royal Mail, there is always – at a premium price – the joys of recorded delivery. In terms of privacy, it is illegal for postpeople to pry into people’s mail, whereas an email address can be phished if he or she doesn’t update their digital devices.

Where Email wins

I love the immediacy of email. So long as you’re not sending anything physical, it is great for multimedia files. Great for sharing links and any message that requires an immediate response. Email can be personalised with different typefaces, and nobody will have difficulty in deciphering your handwriting (unless you use a cursive typeface that can only be picked up by a minority of devices).

Email wins over Royal Mail if you wish to communicate internally or briefly at such little cost (like free of charge) and little time. Only telephone has greater immediacy.

At least with email, you can spellcheck your letter – no scrunched sheets after making the slightest of mistakes. Plus the joy of being able to circulate your messages to other people without having to photocopy or pay extra postage charges. With the prevalence of smartphones and digital tablets, reaching your customers or friends is easier than ever.

Analogue or digital: Which is better?

I like the tactile nature of letter writing and the convenience of email. With snail mail, the nature of making a real effort to write and post a letter. For email, I would consider this a better media for urgent messages, though not quite as good as the telephone or text message.

Verdict: TIE

Next in The Shock of the Old: Film or Digital Photography.

S.V., 12 September 2014.


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