No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Sociological Aspects of Letters and Written Communication

Writing fundamentally opposes secrecy as it transforms private communication into something that can be potentially public. Before writing, legal transactions required witnesses; writing replaced this by providing a permanent record accessible to anyone, symbolizing an ‘objective spirit’: universal availability.

Written content gains an objective form that exists independently of whether it is read or acknowledged. This objectivity makes written communication inherently insecure for maintaining secrets, as it can be accessed by unintended readers. Letters are unique because they capture and objectify subjective thoughts meant for a specific individual, unlike publications intended for a broad audience. Letters lack non-verbal cues and the surrounding context of face-to-face communication. This results in letters presenting a pure factual content devoid of nuances. Letters offer a clear conveyance of thoughts but miss the emotional and contextual richness of spoken communication. This clarity can lead to misunderstandings because recipients often seek more than the logical meaning provided by the text, looking for emotional or subjective undertones that the letter cannot supply. Written communication tends to be more precise in its logical content but can be more ambiguous in conveying deeper, personal meanings. This dual nature of precision and ambiguity makes letters a frequent source of misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

The reliance on written communication reflects a high cultural level where individuals are adept at giving a permanent form to their thoughts. In written interactions, the clear aspects become clearer, while ambiguous aspects become more pronounced, leading to a complex interplay of understanding and misinterpretation. Letters constrain the recipient's understanding of the logical core but offer more freedom in interpreting the deeper, personal meanings compared to speech. Speech merges non-verbal cues with words to create a unified comprehension, while letters separate these elements, highlighting the complexities of mutual understanding.

Written communication, especially letters, embodies a distinctive blend of permanence, interpretive complexity, and sociological significance, that shape human interactions in ways that differ fundamentally from oral communication.

Simmel, G. (1908), Exkurs über den schriftlichen Verkehr, in: Soziologie, p. 379—382, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.