The phrase “you’ve got mail” is repeated six times in the movie You’ve Got Mail, but only once in an actual conversation. Two thirds into the movie, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) repeats the classic AOL catchphrase to Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan): “You’ve got mail. Those are very powerful words,” Joe says, in a statement laced with irony. By that point in the movie, Joe is aware that he and Kathleen have been corresponding anonymously over the past few months over email; Kathleen has no idea.
The movie celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, and its age shows in exchanges like this one. After all, it’s been years since most of us heard the AOL Man issue a congratulatory proclamation when we’re greeted by the bold font of an unread message in our inbox. We don’t need his cheery reminder. We already know we’ve got mail. We always do. The bedrock of my Gmail account is sinking, as I write this, from a pile-up of unread updates, unwelcome spam, languishing messages I’ve forgotten to reply to. Guaranteed, none of them are as charming as the emails exchanged between Joe and Kathleen throughout Nora Ephron’s movie, long considered one of the best additions to the rom-com genre.
You’ve Got Mail is an ode to email’s lesser-sung superpower: Relationship-building. In You’ve Got Mail, an AOL inbox becomes the unlikely space where Joe and Kathleen express their truest, best selves. In this sacred exchange, they’re not Joe, bookstore conglomerate tycoon, and Kathleen, idealistic indie bookstore owner — they’re NY152 and Shopgirl, individuals freed from the baggage of their identities. Since Kathleen placed strict limitations on their communication (no specifics! no names!) there’s no point to their correspondence, really, other than to pierce the void with an arrow of their hearts. They communicate in rambling paragraphs full of observations (“Did you know that every night a truck pulls up to H&H bagels and pumps a ton of flour into underground tanks?”) and confessions (“I have read Pride and Prejudice about 200 times”), written in sentences only they could write. Without a shared reality, their affection for each other is built through understanding the way the other person sees the world — and themselves.
Watching this movie in 2018, I was bowlled over by these free-wheeling, low-stakes conversations conducted via inbox ping-pong. For the most part, my use of email has been estranged from such easy communication and spontaneous sentence building. For at least ten years, thanks to the ubiquity of texting, DMing, modern-day instant messages and more, writing an email is now more an exercise in frenetic over-analyzing than sharing snippets of a day with loved ones.
Email-speak has morphed into a strange and specific realm of communication, with its own strangely formal etiquette. I can shoot off a text without thinking, but spend fifteen minutes tweaking an email. Does the concentration of exclamation points indicate that I’m a pushover? Should I separate this paragraph into multiple smaller paragraphs which contain the same language, because it will look more elegant? Can emails look elegant? I adjust, I change, I hit send and wish I could adjust and change some more. Sometimes, I hit send accidentally, and that’s another moment of panic and terror.
And that’s not even touching on my inbox itself, which is unfortunately free of notes from NY152. Instead, my inbox is brimming with Uniqlo sales that expired two days ago, notes from family members may or may not be encrusted by a sheen of passive-aggression, long email chains planning events that spiral out of control (and are skewered brilliantly in the book Hey Ladies). Then there are the emails awaiting reply, but I don’t want to remind you of those. So, given the anxiety now associated with email, hearing Kathleen Kelly swoon over the state of her inbox — “I go on line, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: You've got mail” — is like a dispatch from an alternate reality, where email is a good thing.
But email doesn’t have to be so stilted, so burdensome. And it often isn’t. Beneath the flurry of falsely friendly correspondence and the exclamation points, many of of our inboxes house their own Chambers of Secrets. And on days when I down the particular cocktail of nostalgia and self loathing instead of something sensible, like coffee, I climb through my inbox to that forbidden zone, where shards of my past emotional state live on in saccharine all-caps exclamations and sweet sentences. Or, as I call them, the Ex Files, where all the emails with my exes are preserved. With my high school boyfriend, elaborate nicknames in all-caps and minute updates from summers apart, spent visiting far-flung family. With my most recent ex, a string of Google calendar invites for dates and pat responses to my long-winded notes using Gmail’s suggested phrases (I should have known, I should have known).
In the pre-email age, people were left with half of their love letters — and half of the story — after the relationship ended. No longer. We have both call and response stored in email threads, there for the reading. There I am, as I was. No other method of communication allows for such immediate access of a two-sided conversation. Have you ever tried to search through your text messages for specific sentences? It’s nearly impossible. But email? Paragraphs of who you once were, splayed out.
Amy Feltman’s novel, Willa & Hesper, published by Grand Central in February 2019, explores the emotional minefield potentially lurking in a person’s email inbox. After being blindsided by a breakup with her girlfriend of seven months, Willa stores their email correspondence in a folder emphatically titled “DO NOT OPEN.” Inevitably, Willa ignores her own instructions. In those emails, she finds a bit of the old Willa and Hesper – the sparkling small talk of people falling in in love.
Willa’s experience in Willa & Hesper shows the obvious flip side to the Ex Files: People can fall in love over email, just as my grandparents once fell in love exchanging snail mail letters. Just ask Joe and Kathleen, or the characters in the epistolary novel When You Read This by Mary Adkins, who warm up to each other in email after bristling at each other in person, or a woman and her brother-in-law in Curtis Sittenfeld’s short story “Plausible Deniability,” who exchange daily notes about classical music instead of expressing what they’re really thinking about each other. Or ask me, who forged a platonic friendship through pages-long emails about the mundane and the significant, through the the things we’d never say but would happily write. These playful, earnest messages about our crushes and the day’s disasters subvert email’s reputation as formal and utilitarian mode of conversation.
To me, Joe and Kathleen’s correspondence in You’ve Got Mail is a compelling reminder that email — not text, not even handwritten notes — is the most romantic form of written communication, because the back-and-forth stays there forever. The science is there to back up my hunch. In 2015, a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour found that email elicited a stronger emotional response than voicemail, especially when it came to romantic applications. Mind you, that is not what the researches suspected. As The Atlantic reports, “The researchers hypothesized that participants would prefer email to voicemail for utilitarian messages, and voicemail to email for romantic messages.” It turned out that the white slate of an email, with its opportunity for non-sequiturs and unbridled enthusiasm, is even better at conveying who we are than our voices.