Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Power of the Pen            

Oh yes, we’ve long been told the pen is mightier than the sword, despite numerous instances when it wasn’t. We’ve yet to be told the pen is mightier than cell phone messages, e-mails, or tweets. Recent experiences at our place showed it might well be.

More than a year after disputing my 2009 real estate taxes, I was told my claim had been upheld and a settlement check would be sent soon. Six months later, despite numerous phone inquiries and e-mails, no cash had appeared.

I decided to sit right down and write those guys a letter--the old fashioned kind on real paper with a real signature, placed in an envelope, and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. The only bow to today’s technology was typing it on my computer and printing it out.

I threw in a few legal-sounding phrases in the hope the Michigan Tax Tribunal and my local assessor might think I was benefiting from expert legal advice. (You can pick up all sorts of lawyer phrases watching reruns on TV of “Boston Legal” or the more recent “Harry’s Law” show. Both are entertaining, although they probably have little to do with reality.)

My letter worked. Almost immediately, the assessor presented me with a settlement document to sign. Shortly thereafter, a check arrived in the mail from the county treasurer.

During almost the same time span, promised utility company rebates for installation of a new heating system failed to materialize. Phone calls and e-mails to the contractor and the utility proved fruitless over several months. Each entity said the other was responsible; none offered any real help.

Remembering the “mighty pen” adage, once again I put computer to paper. The letter to the contractor’s vice-president included some nifty phrases like “time is of the essence” and “documentary evidence” and strongly implied that Small Claims Court was the next place we were likely to meet, although I carefully avoided any specific threatening language. Two days after I mailed the letter a sales agent phoned and asked what the company could do to make me happy. I told him, and he did it.

If letter writing has been removed from your communications arsenal, you may want to consider reviving it, if just for those special occasions when more modern techniques don’t get the job done.

My “mighty pen” is about to be dusted off again. Two months ago I sent e-mail requests for some routine information to two U.S. Forest Service research units. One, to the Forest Products Laboratory, asked a general question about the status of a long-running research program. The other, to the webmaster at the Pacific Southwest Research Station, inquired about the status of a history of the organization, which I knew was produced a few years ago. Neither organization responded.

When I worked at the Forest Products Laboratory back in the 70s, it was considered almost a sacred duty to quickly and accurately respond to any request for information. Every incoming letter, and there were thousands, was logged in and assigned to an individual or unit head for reply. A fairly high-level administrator followed up if replies were not made promptly; he also monitored outgoing mail to ensure responses were complete and of high quality.

The many good attributes of our ability to communicate quickly and effectively in the electronic age apparently are counter-balanced by a big, fat negative. If a potential correspondent doesn’t feel like working a bit to frame a reply, he or she simply ignores an e-mail inquiry and nobody seems to know or care.

As a tenacious geezer, I will get the answers to my questions, either with an old-fashioned paper letter or a lot of pesky phone calls. But why, oh why, do they make it so difficult when an e-mail response would be so easy?


Kay Dennison said...

I respect your tenacity!!!! When dealing with bureaucracy, it's essential!

schmidleysscribblins, said...

One of my tasks in my old job was to answer letters for my upper levels, which often included Congresspeople. That's when I learned who really read the mail. You might have been dealing with someone at a lower level with no power. Frustration to have to pick up a pen these days. I would rather email a message. You obviously are a patient person. Dianne

Jhawk23 said...

I've heard it said many times that a handwritten letter carries a lot more weight, even in this day and age, than e-mails or phone calls, because recipients know it's more effort and they think you're REALLY SERIOUS. It's worked for me sometimes too.

In olden times, when many couldn't read and write, there were letter-writers who would sit outside courthouses and other places of business and write appropriate documents for money. Do you suppose there's still a few coins to be made by those who have mastered the art of the written complaint, writing them up for others who don't want to take the trouble?

joared said...

That really is incredible! I'm hanging on to my pens, papers and envelopes.

I enjoy those two TV shows you mentioned, too.

Ginnie said...

Good advice. Emails can be so easily overlooked and a letter, in this day and age, is a rarity for most folks. You certainly proved that it works.

Tom Sightings said...

It's true, emails are easily ignored. But why should we have to go to so much trouble to get our tax rebate, or our utility company credit, or info. from the forestry dept.? Frustrating. But kudos to you for keeping after them.