Communicating Emotion in Old Assyrian Letters from Kanesh

Jane Gordon, University College London

This paper considers how the constraints of letter-writing as a genre shaped communication about emotion in letters from the Old Assyrian trading colony at Kanesh. All letters record conversation that has been subjected, and consequently adapted, to a spatial and temporal remove. For the business associates and family members who wrote the correspondence found at Kanesh, it was customary to live hundreds of kilometers apart and see one another rarely; distance was the norm and their communication reflected that. Previous consideration of emotion in these letters has focused on its occurrence within what we would see as business correspondence or has regarded emotion as a predominately female phenomenon. I will examine instead how distance affected both emotional experience and emotional expression for all Old Assyrian letter-writers, regardless of their gender, relationship to their addressee, or social context.

Since, unlike in face-to-face communication, letter-writers could not be certain of—or  modulate their own self-presentation to—their recipient’s emotional reactions, they developed particular ways of discussing both their own emotions and those of their recipient in order to obtain the desired result. This paper will discuss these communication strategies, and what they reveal both about letter-writing conventions and about broader social norms of emotional expression and behavior during this period.