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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #78, Spring ’86. This is still the best advice I can give! Except, of course, for the repeated use of mundane.... 2004 addition: Electronic mail has entered the picture since this was written. Bear in mind that it can combine the worst features of speech and writing, as it’s produced as though it were spontaneous and face-to-face, and consumed like any other written word—as though every syllable was intended to have the effect it evokes....


My cousins, I wrote last quarter of the value of working from facts rather than assumptions about each other. Given the size of the Known World, however, you can’t talk directly with everyone you need to deal with. In order to convert assumptions into facts you have to work through the mail and phone systems—and these are full of pitfalls for the unwary devotee of medieval fantasy. Many residents of the Current Middle Ages try to treat the mails and the phone as an integral part of our game, but they’re not ours at all. When we refuse to adapt to their needs, they serve us poorly indeed. Herewith a brief account of the customs I have observed that do most to interfere with our communications:

1. Tempting Fate on the Envelope. The Postal Service is as mundane as you can get. If you want to give a letter the best possible chance of passing smoothly though their system, you should make it look as normal as you can. Address it with mundane name only, and type or print very clearly. Include your re­turn address—also in mundane terms. If you decorate the envelope, use SCA names and titles, or calligraph the address, you are asking for trouble. Some Postal Service people may enjoy it and help it along, but many will shunt it into whatever limbo they keep for things they don’t understand. A fancy envelope is fun, but it’s not worth the risk.

2. Racing into a Brick Wall. Express Mail and the other arrangements for speeding a letter to its destination and assuring good care along the way have two things in common: they’re expensive, and they’re almost guaranteed to delay your message and to ensure that the reader will be in a foul mood. They work fine for sending things to businesses, or to people who are sure to be home during the day. If there’s no one on hand to receive them, however, they get dragged back to the station. This costs at least a day, and the recipient may well have to take time from work to go to the post office. “What? I stood in line for 15 minutes to read this?” is not a reaction that bodes well for your case.
     If you want to ensure that a message gets through, be extra-careful with the address and send two or three copies of the same thing. Start them from different mailboxes, and include a note explaining what you’re doing so your target doesn’t think you’ve gone mad. ’Twill be much cheaper than buying special service, and probably both faster and more agreeable for the person you’re trying to reach. For positive evidence that your letter has reached its destination, include a stamped return postcard. This costs pennies instead of dollars, and avoids the implication that the person you’re writing to can’t be trusted to admit he’s heard from you.
     Of all the extra services you can buy, only Special Delivery mail may sometimes be worth the cost—it doesn’t get to a town any faster, but once there it goes more or less straight to your addressee, without waiting for the next regular run. This is useful on holiday weekends! (And the carrier is supposed to leave it in the mailbox if there’s no one home.)

3. Hiding the Message

     a. Buried in Hieroglyphics. Complex information is hard enough to convey when it’s easy to read. If your letter will run over a page of longhand—or over about a hundred words of calligraphy—find a typewriter. Borrow one, rent one, buy one; they’re common. And Do Not Use a Gothick Typeface. Fancy scripts and typefaces feel wonderful as you place them on the page...but they are an absolute pain to decipher. The busier your target, the less likely you are to get a decent hearing when you play games with the format. (The same comments apply to dot-matrix print: if it’s hard to read, it won’t do its job.)

     b. Lost in the Verbiage. If you let someone guess what you want, there’s a good chance he’ll guess wrong. Explain what you’re writing about and why in the first paragraph, and also why you think your reader needs to know about it. Boil your message down to one or two pages, so you have a chance to get your point across before your reader gets distracted. (If you really need to describe a long series of events, or something else that will run several pages, write it up as a separate article and refer to it in the letter proper. This well keep the narra­tive from breaking up the flow of your argument, and will make the whole thing feel shorter, even though it may well take up more paper.)

     c. Afloat in Time and Space. Even though you know perfectly well what day it is as you write, and who you are where you live as well, these points will not be obvious to the one trying to answer your letter. Put the full date (that’s month, day, and both mundane and SCA year) at the top of the first page, and make sure your mundane name and address appear somewhere in the letter. If you depend on the envelope to carry this information for you, you may never get an answer—the envelope will probably be long gone by the time someone sits down to reply.

4. Talking to an Empty Room. Phone messages can go astray as easily as those in the mails, but in different ways. If you don’t recognize the voice, ask for the party you’re calling by mundane name. If you have to ask for a return call, leave a simple, easily pronounced name that will be recognized by whoever is likely to pick up your phone. And leave your whole phone number, including area code. Call back if you don’t get an answer in a reasonable time—many a message is lost or garbled before delivery.
     Once you’ve got your party on the line, don’t assume he’s listening to you—you may not be able to compete with the rest of his environment: dinner, domestic disasters, company, whatever. Before you launch into your business, say who you are and where you’re calling from, and ask for a few minutes to talk about the subject you have in mind. Without a willing audience, you might as well not talk—’twill do no good, and may harm your cause. And try to be brief—the person you’ve called probably had plans for the next half hour; he may choose to give it to you instead, but you don’t have a right to it.

5. Abusing Dumb Machines. No matter how irritating you may find the thing, a phone recorder is there because the owner wants to help you. Do give him a message—and wait for the tone before you start. It does no good to leave a blank whistle on the tape, or a fragment like “–ammit, this is urgent!” in an anonymous snarl. If you choke when faced with recorders, memorize this speech and use it every time you run into one: “[name of person you’re calling], this is [your name, your phone number including area code]. It’s [whatever time of whatever day]. Please call.”
     No matter how short the incoming tape, you’ll have time for that much. If the box hasn’t hung up, you can go on to say when you’ll be around to take the call, and what you want to talk about—some recorders don’t limit the incoming message, and it doesn’t matter how you ramble once you’ve said enough to let your party call you back.

Even in the Current Middle Ages, there’s no way around the basic law of communication: You can learn nothing and influence nothing unless you get your message to the person you want to reach, put it in a form he can use, and make sure he can find you to reply. Consent to be a bit mundane, my friends—’twill make the Known World run much more smoothly!

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