Reflective vs. Reactive: How Long-Form Correspondence Changed My Thinking

The letter has been on the decline for a long while now. First, it was the telegraph. Then it was the telephone. Finally, the Internet and cell phone came along to deliver the killing blow. The letter’s epitaph has been written hundreds of times.

Despite the letter’s DOA status, it was only my foray into long-form correspondence — albeit the electronic kind — that highlighted how corresponding with someone changed how I thought. I discovered how long-form correspondence made me more reflective while today’s instantaneous communication made me more reactive.

It All Began With an Email

My first foray into long-form correspondence — reflective communication — began when my friend Leah and I parted ways. We were both leaving Boulder for cities 840 miles apart. She was headed to Seattle for her residency, and I to the San Fransisco Bay Area. I had met her through my boyfriend, who knew her boyfriend (now fiancee). For nearly a year, we had all socialized as couples, but Leah and I had fostered a friendship of our own, separate from our significant others.

She is one of those rare few who gamely responds to my impromptu and inevitable inappropriate comments, such as, “Hey, Leah, did you know that testicle grafting was big in the 1920s? They would sometimes graft baboon balls onto impotent men’s testicles. ” Unfazed by my eccentric choice of conversation topics, she would often chat with me before swimming laps at our local gym. (Sometimes we got so caught up in our conversations that the fitness part never happened. Oops.)

I knew what would happen after we parted ways. Time and distance had already eroded most of my friendships as I hopscotched from one city to the next in my eternal restlessness. Despite our best intentions, our lives began to diverge so much that we lost whatever common bond we had. Transient friendships seemed as the natural consequence of my whirlwind, rootless life. I was heartbroken to see Leah and her boyfriend be added to the ever-expanding roster of friendships gone obsolete.

After we moved, I decided to email Leah on a whim about poolside creepers. I exclaimed, “Leah! There are also those old guys hanging around the hot tub, staring at the lap swimmers in California. I guess the phenomenon isn’t limited to Colorado.” I hadn’t emailed her with the intent to “keep things going” but this email spawned more emails, each one longer and more detailed than the last. It was the high-tech, digital version of the Victorian cross-hatched letters with each email thread building upon the other.

Things got more personal. Even though I had considered Leah a good friend, I hadn’t realized how little I knew about her. In the long emails, she confessed her doubts about her residency and the impact it would have on her boyfriend. I told her about how therapy for my depression about my receding vision was pissing me off. “She tells me to put a percentage on my emotions. Like, 40% angry. All I can say is that I’m 100% annoyed,” I wrote once. We talk about work, life, cooking, at a personal level that real friends — not mere acquaintances — talk about.

Our emails are intermittent. Sometimes mere hours pass between each one. Other times, it’s months. “Don’t worry about answering me promptly,” I wrote to her once, “you’re on Resident Standard Time (RST). I understand.” As inconstant as our correspondence may be, they have done nothing but assure me of the constancy of our friendship. (We even went on our first joint vacation recently where fun was had by all!)

Those emails tell me far more than any Facebook status update or short text ever could. Even with 840 miles separating us, we became closer than we had been while living two miles apart. There was something special about the emails that kept our friendship alive, but I didn’t know what.

The Je Ne Sais Quoi of Long-Form Correspondence

I came to realize that there was something fundamentally different about our emails compared to most of my other communications. We weren’t exchanging messsages in the traditional sense; we were writing letters. In fact our emails were long-form correspondence sent via satellite rather than on the back of horses. Therein lay a clue to why our emails were different.

It only takes a cursory glance at some famous letters, such as Frida Kahlo’s love letter to Diego Rivera to catch a whiff of the letter’s mystique:

Diego:
Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.
— Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera (as appears in Brain Pickings, originally found in The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait)

It’s hard not to feel moved by Kahlo’s vivid, unvarnished words of passion and sensuality. Her words are so raw, so visceral that she makes the simple and endearing “I love you” seem laughably inadequate. As full of ardor as this letter is, it wasn’t enough to make for a happy marriage. Frida and Diego had a tumultuous marriage with multiple affairs on both sides. What they lacked in fidelity, they didn’t lack in passion.

It would be easy to attribute the letter’s potency — magic, even — to the author’s writing prowess. Frida Kahlo was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and a fiercely intelligent woman in her own right. It shouldn’t surprise us that she loved so eloquently. The stupendous intelligence of the authors is certainly a factor in the letter’s je ne sais quoi, but I doubt that’s the only element at play here.

While I wrote my emails (letters masquerading as emails) to Leah, I found myself writing far more profound, cleverer turns of phrase than I ever did in ordinary communication. When we were discussing the difficulty of balancing the disability anti-discrimination laws concerning service animals and proper medical care for difficult psychiatric patients, I wrote: “Reasonable accommodations for unreasonable people is hard to come by.” I wasn’t the only one moved to newfound articulateness. After Leah required emergency surgery overseas, she wrote an incredibly moving and emotional account filled with such detail that I felt like I had been there and experienced her fear first-hand. Neither one of us are world-class intellectuals, yet we produced some powerful sentiments in our private correspondence.

There was something different about long-form correspondence, something that modified my way of interacting with Leah from afar, something that changed my mode of thinking. It was the fundamentally reflective nature of long form correspondence.

The Reflective/Reactive Dichotomy

It has only been in the last 10 years that we’ve come into communicative abundance. As long as you have a data plan and an Internet connection, you can contact (and be contacted by) anyone, anytime, anywhere. This sort of constant connectivity was unthinkable a mere 15 years ago with dial-up connections and ultra-expensive cell phones.

This shift from communication scarcity to plenty has compressed our dialogue with our loved (and not-so-loved) ones, rather than expanding it. It began with the much-maligned text-speak (LOL! OMG!) that turned conversations into volleys of abbreviations. Then we dispensed with the alphabet altogether with the emojis (of which there are hundreds). Cell phones and instant messaging have become the domain of short-form, high-density, imagistic communication.

In such times of communicative abundance, why are our interactions becoming more compressed, rather than expansive? A recent New York Times Op-Ed blames our shrinking attention span. Others attribute it to simple laziness and indolence. All of these might be true, but nobody has discussed the fundamentally reactive nature of modern communication.

Whenever I receive a text, I feel this mystifying urge to respond immediately. In a world where we are accessible 24/7, we are always “on call” and feel an obligation to respond, however trivial the matter might be. Perhaps “responding” isn’t the right word. React is more apt. With so little time between the stimuli — be it an incoming message, an event, or even a feeling — and my communication, I am reacting.

This sort of reactiveness almost turns our interactions into a reflex. The responses are mindless, compact, and yes, shallow. Much like a physiological reflex, there isn’t time (or need) to involve the higher brain. In many situations, this sort of reflex-communication is is perfectly fine. “Traffic. 15m late” doesn’t require a whole lot of contemplation to address. (You can go with “Ok, honey” or “Go to hell,” depending on your reflex.) Rapid-fire reactivity in communication is an inherent part of being constantly “on call.” It’s quick and efficient.

There is a darker side to this sort of reactive communication. As Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “[s]ystem I [mode of thinking] operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” As Kahneman posits, this sort of quick, automatic thinking can lead to all sorts of fallacies, such as making assumptions based on incomplete information, acting on biases and stereotypes, and pure lazy thinking. For quick, reactive thinking, we pay the price of having our thoughts ruled more by emotion than logic.

I am no exception to those reactive fallacies. I’ve been guilty of more than my fair share of hasty poorly-worded messages that cost me more than I gained. I’ve misunderstood messages and reacted in anger when none was warranted. A few ill-advised jokes have made it in there as well. So far, my errors of reaction have been relatively mild. People have lost their livelihoods, relationships, and more due to a poorly considered message.

Whereas letters — physical or electronic — force a moment of repose upon us. Whenever I sit down at the computer to respond to Leah, as I imagine many people sat by the candlelight to pen a letter during the 19th century, I must pause and contemplate. It seems unforgivably rude to reply to a thoughtful email with something thoughtless. So I consider the things that she has written, how I want to respond, what has been happening in my life that I want to convey. I must compose my letter-cum-email, rather than merely write one. A letter transforms our communication into something of reflection rather than reaction.

Letters also have the strange, fascinating quality of expanding one’s thinking. Since letters are a strange mix of conversation and long soliloquy where you must respond to the previous missives but do so in a long stream of thoughts. Without the staccato cadence of face-to-face conversation, I find myself delving more deeply into a topic. I’ve written long examinations of anti-discrimination law, cooking, and even forgiveness, sometimes to a ridiculous degree. It was only in those emails that my embryonic, underdeveloped thoughts had the space to grow into articulate and cogent ideas.

Unlike when I write on a public platform, such as this one, I am talking to a friend who won’t judge me (too much, hopefully). I feel far more free telling Leah about my failed therapy efforts than my 500-plus Facebook friends. I don’t feel the need to be polished and perfect, as I’m talking amongst friends. Such an unpressurized environment engenders a degree of whimsical creativity.

Far be it for me to suggest a Luddite-like return to handwritten correspondence and force an eternal state of repose upon everyone. We live in a world where time is of the essence, where reaction — rather than reflection — is often warranted. In the age of globalization, we cannot rely on the fact that everyone else lives in the same time zone (or even country) as we do. We, for better or for worse, are constantly on call and our communication medium reflects that.

Rather, what I am saying is: how we communicate matters. The medium in which we communicate has the power to influence our thinking as well as the recipient’s, to place us in a reactive or reflective mood. Some communication mediums will foster one mode of thinking which might benefit (or detract from) certain messages. Perhaps texting and messaging are simply more suited for light-weight and more immediate concerns and long-form communication for heavier matters that require more reflection. The communication medium affects the message, which is why Leah and I could only have maintained our friendship through long-form correspondence rather than short-form bursts of texts. Choose wisely.

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Thank you to Leah, JP, Ann, and Ellen for your invaluable feedback (and for pointing out when I was being lazy and careless with my thinking).