How Social Media Has Sabotaged Deep Communication

Writing a personal letter is like stuffing yourself into an envelope to pay a visit. A Facebook post is like waving at someone.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash
From the time I was a teen until my forties, the mailman’s visit was the highpoint of my day. Back then mailmen (and they were men) walked their routes, carrying their mailbags or wheeling them along. The mailman delivered personal letters from people you knew or bills you needed to pay. There was only the occasional piece of junk mail.

Before the computers and the internet appeared in my world, there were typewriters and stationery. I made good use of them. I especially loved writing on beautiful stationery. I occasionally wrote in a journal and sometimes wrote poetry, but mostly I wrote letters. I think the longest letter I ever wrote was 28 single-spaced pages. The recipient referred to it as the term paper.

Every one of those letters was personal and written for only one person. Some went to penpals and some to college students away from home. Some went to people wrestling with problems. Some went to extended family. Some went to very close friends.

As I wrote each letter I thought only of the person who would receive it. It was either someone I already knew well or wanted to get to know and understand. Those letters weren’t shallow. They were meant to encourage or sometimes even chastise just one person. That one person would often return an answer that was equally thoughtful. The exchange might go on for weeks. Or months, or years.

The closer the relationship, the more personal the correspondence became. I wrote to an older relative often, even though I saw her every week. Some things I wanted to be private. I wrote to many students in our church college group (we were its advisors) after they moved to a college campus. We discussed spiritual struggles, relationship problems, job interviews, and anything else that was important to either of us.

Letters Were a Means of Continuing Conversations

I’m sure this has happened to you. You’re at a meeting, at church, or at a party having a great personal conversation with a friend, a third person joins you, and the conversation changes. Once another person comes on the scene, the conversation becomes more impersonal. If this happened to me and an important conversation had been interrupted, we would later continue it by mail.

It was actually easier for me to talk to people on paper than in person. It gave me an opportunity to organize and refine what I wanted to say. I could think about each word and the effect it might have. I wasn’t rushed. Sometimes when I left a live conversation it would not be long before I was thinking of what I should have said. I hardly ever thought of what I’d wished I’d said after dropping a letter in the mailbox. I’d had time to think over everything I wrote and include all that was in my mind.

Email Changed How Most People Communicated

When email came on the scene, most of us who had an internet connection switched to it for communicating with friends. Although it was possible to write in depth by email, most people didn’t. If they sent an email they were usually in a hurry for an answer. An email was fast. Most people didn’t want to wait for answers to snail mail letters. So they sent an email — often one they wrote quickly. They left out what they might have put in a real letter.

Photo, © B. Radisavljevic, Taken at Paso Robles Art Association Exhibit, with Permission to Use Online.

The content of snail mail letters was more private than emails sent to a computer that might be shared. Usually back then each family had only one computer. I had more privacy than most because I was the only computer user in my family. I still am. That was not true of my friends. The less private a communication is, the more superficial it tends to be. What young person wants a roommate or parent reading what a close friend writes to them? I know those who wrote letters to me would never have risked sending an email with the same content.

Now We Have Facebook and Talk to Everyone at Once

While a few of us are brave enough to post what we really think or feel, we still don’t post what we would have written forty years ago to a close friend. Not only would it be too long, but we know there are strangers looking at what we say. We can’t discuss situations that involve family problems, work problems or really personal problems because we know that they should be kept confidential. We’d never share something like that on Facebook or any social media site. Yet many of us now use Facebook to keep in touch with the long-distance friends we used to write letters to. As a result, we don’t share as much or know each other as well anymore.

Do You Still Write and Receive Personal Letters?

I’m guessing most people don’t. I used to spend a good part of each day writing letters when I wasn’t employed. When I started a mail order book business, I gradually stopped writing to friends. We were traveling all over the country and when I was home there was business paperwork to tend to. I had to build a website and keep it updated. And I had to ship out books almost every day. If I really needed to talk, I called someone or we got together. I lost touch with most who did not live close to me.

There simply wasn’t time to write letters anymore. The friends I’d written to when they were in college graduated. Then most finally got married. They soon had families of their own that kept them too busy to write except for the traditional Christmas letter, if even that. As a result, our once-close relationships are now fond memories and our communication has turned superficial. I see some of them on Facebook, but others never joined.

Letters Were Treasured Documents of a Relationship

Unlike emails and social media posts, which are ephemeral, written correspondence on paper is as permanent as you want it to be. I still have files of treasured correspondence from people I love who are no longer in this world. Their words live on in my files. I also have letters from decades ago that bring back memories long forgotten. My friends still live on the pages they wrote.

© B. Radisavljevic, Computer print-outs of letter copies

I typed many of the long letters I wrote so that I could make carbons and keep my copy. Why? Because I often poured out my heart in these letters or shared things I don’t want to forget. Instead of keeping a journal, I wrote letters. I often didn’t know what to say to myself, but I got inspired when talking to someone else.

Later, when I got my first computer I could easily print out copies of my typed letters. It was so much easier than making carbons.

I still have almost every Christmas letter I ever wrote and those letters document what was most important in our family history each year. Without those letters, I probably would have forgotten many of the events which once had seemed very important.

Writing Letters Was Therapeutic

When my son died in an accident at the age of fourteen, the Home School Legal Defense Association put me in touch with another bereaved homeschooling mom, Kathy. I had read about her experience in their magazine and knew it might help both of us if we could communicate. That was back in 1991. Our sons had been about the same age. The article below discusses my relationship with my son and how losing him affected me.

The correspondence with Kathy actually led to a personal meeting when she was visiting her parents in California several months after we were bereaved. By then we knew each other pretty well because of the many long letters we had exchanged. She came to the cemetery where my son was buried and we sat on a bench and talked for a long time and then prayed together. Nothing helps a bereaved person quite like talking to someone who really understands what they are going through.

We continued to write for years until we had resolved our grief enough to carry on without exchanging the letters anymore. Now we are Facebook friends and hardly talk directly to each other at all. Hundreds of miles separate us.

Letters Bring Loved Ones to Us When We Most Need Encouragement

The first people we meet and the last we will probably ever see are those in our families. When my mom died, I found a box in her closet that contained all the cards and letters family members and close friends had sent her for years. In her dark moments when she was grieving the death of my father and I lived a long drive away, she still had all those words of encouragement people had sent. She could reread them whenever she felt alone and needed to be reminded that we loved her even when we couldn’t call and visit as often as she would have liked.

After Mom moved a couple of hundred miles from her sister to live near me, the two continued to write to each other every day until her sister died. Those letters were her one communication line to the family she grew up in. Her sister was the only one who shared most of Mom’s family memories and who understood their family life.

Neither Mom nor her sister ever wrote an email. It was letters that kept them connected and allowed them to reveal their most personal thoughts to each other — thoughts no one else might have really understood. Email, social media, and text messages are quick and easy in our busy lives. However, they may have destroyed the kind of communication that keeps friendships intact and close.

Close friends need more than superficial communication and the annual Christmas letter. They need to share the thoughts and feelings that are best expressed in person, in live phone conversations, or in real letters. Facebook just doesn't cut it.