After Annie Scully's husband died of a heart attack last January, she received hundreds of sympathy cards and notes in the mail -- and three sympathy cards via e-mail.
She's saving all the printed messages and plans to share them someday with her little daughter, Amanda, 2. But she has mixed feelings about the e-mail cards.
"Although I cherish the cards and notes that I received via mail more than the e-cards, I was touched that people acknowledged my grief and loss," said Scully, of Mahwah, N.J., whose husband, John Scully, was 40 when he died. "It was better to get some kind of communication than nothing at all."
It occurred to her, too, that there was a practical reason for the electronic sympathy cards: She wasn't sure that the senders had her street address.
Electronic greeting cards are sailing through cyberspace, not just for typical card-sending occasions like birthdays and holidays, but for a zillion chirpy, no-reason reasons, like "just because," "stay in touch" and "thinking of you." Other categories of electronic greeting cards let people express concern for difficult circumstances, like the death of a pet, the loss of a job, divorces and breakups. "Single again?" reads one snarky card from Egreetings Network (www.egreetings.com). "My one-night stands last longer than your relationships!"
Cybercards, however, give some people pause. Isn't it just a bit callous to send a dressed-up computer message in the wake of a sorrowful occasion like death or chronic illness or for a special one like a marriage proposal?
The companies that offer electronic greeting cards say they don't see electronic cards as a substitute for paper cards but as an enhancement to e-mail, which is known for its brusqueness.
"What we're providing is a better e-mail experience," said Andrew Moley, the president and chief executive of Egreetings. "This is an enabler of sentimental communications."
Some people do not have an easy time expressing themselves. Men, in particular, "are more comfortable in the e-mail medium," Moley said.
"It's easy, fun and efficient," Moley continued. "On our site, you can add humor and music and let the card speak for you. You don't have to use your words."
Senders of electronic cards tend to be younger than the senders of paper greeting cards, and their ranks include a higher proportion of men. Forty percent of e-cards are sent by men, compared with only 10 percent for paper cards.
"What counts is that you were thinking about them and wanted to let them know," said Gordon Tucker, a former president of Egreetings. "It is really important in terms of relationship management. The fact it is convenient and free does not mean the sentiment is any less heartfelt."
Or does it?
"Some people will be offended if you send something cheap or free, while, conversely, the most impressive gift is one someone made," said Marty McKolskey, the president of 1001 Postcards (www.postcards.org).
"If you go to the drugstore and pick up the first card you see," McKolskey said, "does that count as more effort than going through the 10,000 images on our site and picking the music and putting together a full production? Someone may spend hours going from site to site trying to find the perfect message."
The appropriateness of an electronic card depends in large part on the relationship between the sender and receiver.
Scully spends much of her workday at her computer running Praxis Marketing, which does marketing for technology trade shows. Over the years, she has received electronic cards for her birthdays and on other occasions. "I got a couple when my daughter was born," she said. "That was fun. Those were from close friends who sent a paper card, as well."
The electronic sympathy cards she received after her husband's death, as well as the handful of regular e-mail messages, were from business associates she dealt with primarily online, or from relatives living far away. One electronic card was from a couple; all the rest were from men. "If they had been from a close friend or immediate family member, that wouldn't have been too appropriate," she said.
Certainly, etiquette evolves. "What does not change is that there are solemn, important occasions in life," said Judith Martin, who writes about etiquette under the name Miss Manners, "and they require real, live people. And sometimes they require a handwritten, symbolic representation of people being as close as they can."
In many cases, sending an e-card is a judgment call. "If you hesitate or think about it, don't do it," said Alan Manevitz, a psychiatrist at New York Presbyterian Hospital. "A personal phone call, note or visit at a time of psychological distress carries more weight for all those not into using the computer as their main communication device." But he added, "it is better to do something than to put it off and not do it at all."