A response, a reply and turn-taking

A response, a reply and turn-taking

Not all letters require a reply and turn-taking, in spite of the orthodoxy that says this is one of the definitional features of letters as a genre. This is not a problem with the definition, it’s due to the complexity of the letter and linked to the plasticity of the form, which shades into other genres and other genres shade in to it. And so, for example, a letter that is addressed to me personally and has a personal signature as well as organisational affiliation from the writer, but which conveys information about an automatic payment for car insurance, is ‘for information purposes‘ only. No reply is required or anticipated: the correspondence is closed – or rather it is not a correspondence at all, because no reply and turn-taking will occur, although a sort of response does happen because an automatic process has been set up an earlier stage in which a payment is made by being triggered by this ‘letter’. Rather than a letter in the definitional sense of the word, this is almost a circular or something like it, with information conveyed and then the subject is closed. And while there is a response here, it is of an automatic and one-off kind; it is not a reply in the usual direct sense and no further turn-taking would result.

A variant on this can be found in St Paul‘s letters in the New Testament, which were sent to communities of people with the expectation they would be read aloud or otherwise conveyed communally and responded to both by individuals and the group as a whole. The way they are written is as a pronouncement, the conveying of information, encouragement  and exhortation, and built into them is the expectation of something that is not a direct reply, but a more general response to the message conveyed: that the conduct of both individuals and the collectivity would change as a result. The feeling is conveyed that a reply in a direct sense would not only be inappropriate, but perhaps more strongly oppositional, and that both the direct and indirect recipients of Paul’s letters should simply do as instructed.

A further variant is where there are communications that are informational, but which do have built in to them the expectation of direct reply. An example here is that a while back I received a tax notification from UK Inland Revenue which asked me to provide confirmatory information; I did this and received an acknowledgement which also requested further information; I provided this by letter and followed up with a phone call; from this I was asked for a third piece of information, which in turn I provided. This communicative turn-taking was neither initiated by nor continued with letters in the usual sense given to this word, of some kind of personal exchange between linked people. It was utilitarian, for ‘business’ purposes in the general sense of the word business and getting some utilitarian purpose accomplished. But like the exhortatory messages of Paul, it bears on how we understand letters nonetheless.


Last updated: 21 November 2019