The Business Correspondent. Part 2
Incidentally too there is his custom. I do not put this first, for there is a grim satisfaction at times in letting a customer go. Of course if you are not your own employer, the custom of your correspondent may seem to have to come first. And if you are temperamentally unable to control your anger, you will never make a good correspondent. Some men are noted for their savage letters, but they are not the men who become head-correspondents. If you simply must write to the man what you think of him - since he is absent and cannot be given a quick choice between the door and the window - don't aspire to correspond.
But some of the best correspondents are men who naturally have a good deal of temper, only they have taught it to come to heel. A good correspondent can't be a helpless mass of compliance, who forever says Yes, Yes. There must be iron in his blood, and an edge to his mildness. And good temper can be cultivated; the soft iron can be hardened, the brittle iron can be made springy. Do you know that old story about Lincoln's fiery secretary of war! Stanton had been exasperated, and he brought to the president a letter which he was about to send off. It breathed fire. The president listened and nodded approval and said, "That's fine; but make it stronger." Stanton took it away, revised it, and brought back the red-hot thing for approval. "That's very fine," said Lincoln. "That's just what the man deserves." "Then I'll send it off," said Stanton. Lincoln looked up in real or feigned astonishment. "Send it! You aren't going to send it! I thought you were just freeing your mind. Burn it up."
Well, even in freeing his mind, Stanton is not to be imitated
Once more, the young man who sets out to train his temper for the art of correspondence should put his selfish interest first. Even the importance of keeping a customer for your firm is not so important as that. It does not pay to ask one's self. How far will I sacrifice my manhood to save ten dollars for this house? But it does pay to say, I cannot - for the sake of my health and my character - afford to get angry or descend to bear malice. Be slow to wrath, and indolent in anger. It pays you in self-respect. It will pay you in the long run in cash. Be quite certain that the temptation to write a cutting letter will assail you. Look for it with every envelope you open, for it will lurk in the suavest communication of them all. The blunt abuse of some underbred fellow will not annoy you, but the cunning and covert abuse of the expert trill. He will find ways of annoying you that you do not dream of. His meanness will mask in smooth phrases. When the boor abuses you, why, the hotter his tone the cooler you should be. When the expert tries to do you dirt, reply with a courtesy which is cool as Chesterfield's and as firm as John Hay's. This may sound like a high ideal of tact, but in every large city letters are daily being written which show this ideal to be perfectly attainable.
The successful correspondent has one quality beyond the man of the world. For, after all, the man of the world is rather negative. He is too indolent to bear malice; he avoids rows and scenes; he has tact. But he lacks enthusiasm. The good correspondent unites this man's self-control with a certain joy of life which is his own. It is rarely the joy of life which springs from being a great inventor or a great financier. The correspondent's triumphs are more modest, but they are none the less real.
It is his ambition to know the business almost as well as the founder knows it, and quite as well as the sales manager. And it is his delight to find words for the peculiar excellence of every part of the system and of every article produced. He does not praise the system as such, for his business is to consider the customer's interests first of all. But when the system bears on the goods and helps to prove their excellence, he is able to show it. And his study of the strong points of the goods is essential to his own happiness. He must have confidence in them and in his house, or his writing will not ring true. He must praise honestly, or soon he will lose zest for his work.
He allows himself an occasional superlative, for his enthusiasm demands it. But his superlatives are discriminating. Nobody is going to believe him if he insists that, of all possible houses and all possible goods, his house and his goods are in all possible respects superior to all possible others. He seeks out the particular facts that actually do deserve superlatives from his pen and from the lips of his customers. Thus the strength of his art as a writer is the strength of honesty. You cannot root good writing in anything but sincerity.
His letters are full of discriminating enthusiasm. This does not mean that they bubble with hilarity or bristle with jokes. Good humor is not necessarily humor. But there may be now and then a touch of humor. It is only when it seldom comes that humor wished-for comes. The twinkle of wit must be like a star when only one is shining in the sky. And there are customers who don't like even that much.
I will venture to add that the correspondent guards his good humor as jealously as he guards his health. In the last analysis they are one and the same thing, A night out has ruined many a letter next day. Too many cigars will give that irritable brevity which drives the farmer who receives it back into his shell, or provokes a similar letter from the other heavy smoker. And apropos of the word heavy, a heavy lunch makes a heavy letter. Get your sleep. Get your recreation. You will get your man.
Yes, he is a paragon, this correspondent, this composite photograph compounded of every fellow's best. But this is a day of paragons. It is the day of the high-class artist who can work for money and still love his art. And there is no reason why a youth who sets out to be a correspondent should be content with being a fourth-rate one.