Re-humanizing Relationships

Handwritten Letters in the Age of Social Media

The other day, I stumbled on a humorous online article titled something like “Crazy letters from landlords,” highlighting bizarre letters from landlords to their tenants. Apparently, only landlords and passive aggressive roommates write letters anymore: everyone else either doesn’t have time or is in good enough standing to talk face-to-face or via social media.

This made me think, what is the role of letters in today’s social media driven world? Could it be that we only need letters for official correspondence? Or for times when we need a paper trail, or aren’t (or don’t want to be) Facebook friends? Or do letters serve a deeper purpose?

For many, there’s no doubt that handwritten letters are a last resort. Break glass in case of emergency and you’ll find a pen, paper, envelope, and a stamp.

For others, though, there’s something strange and wonderful starting to happen. Letter-writing is making a comeback after a long sabbatical. For these early re-adopters, letters are not so much a throwback but the next step in the evolution of social media. Letters are a deep, slow breath in a quasi-panicked world that often forgets to breathe.

It makes sense when you think about it. All across society, investments in efficiency have led to both benefits and excesses. Reconciling the two often leads us to personalized, slow, creative experiences that allow us to reconnect with what it means to be human in a natural world. Mainstream medicine and pharmaceutical innovation, while effective and lifesaving, have resulted in ceding our health to pills, professionals and institutions, ushering in integrative, natural, and “slow” medicine. Fast food and corporate agriculture, while feeding millions, has revealed negative health and environmental consequences, bringing us to slow and locally grown food. Mass production and globalization, while giving us affordable and varied products, has created a culture of consumption and waste, leading to a renewed appreciation for craft, quality, and locally-made. Efficiency and authenticity are a yin and yang that, it seems, yearn to return to a natural balance.

In the same way, social media has brought us in easy, efficient touch with a vast network of people. The benefits have been great: we can now rekindle old friendships easily, and find new friends with whom we share common interests. That said, social media of the “life perpetually on stage” variety has also eliminated privacy and intimacy from our social interactions. Performative social lives can cause us to lose touch with our true selves for the sake of maintaining consistency with our online personae. A personal “brand” requires consistent messaging and doesn’t allow for the messy, varied ups and downs of being human. The cognitive dissonance that ensues can lead to feelings of isolation and worthlessness vis-a-vis the very friends with whom we are now so effortlessly connected.

Enter the handwritten letter. A letter is private. It allows you to say things that would be too embarrassing or awkward to say in person or on Facebook. Exchanging handwritten letters is not so much a transaction as a shared experience. If social media friendships are often conducted in a multitasking environment, letter-writing friendships require mono-tasking: they ask us to slow down, reflect, ask questions, make meaning. Handwritten letters are a hallmark of real friendships. True friends are the ones that you’d want to write a letter to.

All friendships have a life cycle. They often start easy, shallow, light. As we get to know the friend better, we peel back layers, discover new facets. The process of building a friendship is an adventure and an exploration. As we travel further with our friends, letters begin to play a transformative role, commemorating experiences and marking the depth, scope, and importance of our journeys together.

A letter says to the recipient, “I cared enough to make time for you.” When time is our most valuable resource, the mere act of letter-writing can sometimes mean more than the words on the page. Likewise, our handwriting alone, along with the occasional scratched out word or misspelling, can communicate a layer of nuance that can’t be put into words. As a practice, letter-writing invites us to slow down and reflect on the meaning of our relationships. It asks us to pull up from the day-to-day transactional exchanges to see the bigger picture, the deeper substance of a friendship. Friendships, after all, give life meaning and, some would argue, make it worth living: loneliness and worthlessness are what we fear most.

Letter-writing can help us in our personal development as well: helping us cultivate compassion and embrace imperfection, both of which have been scientifically linked to improving human happiness.

A letter is the opposite of perfect and polished: it invites us to lean into uncertainty, sloppiness, and error, especially since many of us are so out of practice when it comes to our handwriting. Letter-writing forces us to embrace what Barney Saltzberg refers to as the “beautiful oops” of scribbled-out words and misspellings. There is no backspace.

A letter asks us to know ourselves. Only when we are in tune with our own voice do words flow easily and authentically in long form. There are no emojiis to fall back on, no word count limits, no hashtags to give us an easy shorthand. Instead, we need to truly feel. That can be scary at first, but the payoff in terms of deeper and more meaningful interactions is well worth it.

So in this age of social media, handwritten letters are rightfully becoming more important than ever. They are the signal in the noise, pointing to our truly important relationships. They are the silence in the cacophony. They are the slow-paced thoughtful connection that brings those we know or are getting to know into our closest circle while still embracing, on a lighter level, the many hundreds to whom we are connected.

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