12 JUNE 1993, Page 63


Dear Mary. . .

Q. I need your advice rather urgently. To explain, I've just got a fax machine and have been sending out lots of letters on it. One of my sisters in England also has a fax (much to my amazement), so naturally I sent her one straight away. I was surprised that she didn't answer by return; hers came the next day. However, she did say that she was in London when mine arrived, hence the delay. Which brings me to the point: what is an answer 'by return' in the case of a fax? For a letter it's simple: one should answer if possible by return of post. From California, where I live, to England, letters take a minimum of four days, often much longer, so one is fairly safe in allowing a week or so before answering. One has had rt dinned into one since childhood that, if You get a letter from somebody, you should answer within a week or a maximum two weeks. Anything later requires an apology or rather an excuse even if untrue: 'Awfully sorry for late answer ... I've just got back ,from Alaska/Timbuctoo/etc' depending on 'Menem. With a fax should one answer within the hour? Or even 15 minutes, given the speediness of transmission? Perhaps every new technology requires some re- thinking of the correct response. For exam- Pie, telegrams (which you are probably too

young to remember) almost always had bad news; as they were jolly expensive, the answer was simple, such as: 'Desperately sorry, Mitford.' Only three words. Or if it was just a broken limb, not a death: 'Rotten luck, Mitford.' Again, only three words, ample, at a shilling a word. Eagerly await- ing your response. It's now about 1.30 p.m. Wednesday. I'm sitting by my fax machine.

J.M., Oakland, California

A. I have considered your query and con- clude as follows. An 'answer by return' fax need not be replied to until that evening, to coincide with the last post. The reason? Faxing is a comparatively 'pushy' medium — faxes can arrive at any time of day or night. If the faxer asks to be replied to by return, she denies her recipient the chance

of calm reflection before penning her response. A letter containing the same request arrives in the morning and gives its recipient a whole day to consider her reply before catching the six o'clock post that evening. Incidentally, faxing has spawned its own excuse system. Just as people use the feeble let-out, 'Your letter never arrived — it must have got lost in the post,' so the parallel fax excuse has evolved: `Sorry. There was no paper in my machine,' or, 'Sorry, your fax got blurred in transmis- sion.'

Q. The lady in the flat above often plays her piano in an inept and desultory man- ner. I find the noise maddening. What can I do? A.B., W.8.

A. Next time your neighbour starts up her pointless tinkling, quickly telephone her number but hang up before she reaches the instrument. You will not only have the sat- isfaction of hearing her rush across the room to answer the call but will find that no more than two such calls will usually be necessary to disturb her mood or inclina- tion for piano-playing.

Mary Killen