What We Can Gain From Writing Letters
I don’t cling to my cell phone like it’s a lifeline. In fact, I don’t really like cell phones that much. When I worked retail, there would always be customers who continued to talk on their phone while I helped them, and they looked annoyed when I asked them questions. I did it anyway though. Cell phones and I have an uneasy relationship.
I use social media. You pretty much have to these days. So much of the way news is delivered is through social media. I check my Twitter feed when I wake up and tune into the morning shows over my morning coffee. There have been days where I was away from my computer for a few hours and I felt like the world had changed in my absence.
The news as it is served up via social media meets our need for instant gratification. It hasn’t always been this way. My mom recently gave me my grandparents’ love letters from 1918. The mail was delivered twice a day back then. Besides newspapers, people communicated through their letters to loved ones.
My grandparents' love story unfolded in their letters.
In one letter, my grandmother tells of the panic one of her dormmates felt when she learned she had a phone call. The poor girl was sure it was bad news and she almost had a nervous breakdown thinking about it. As it turned out, her folks just wanted to check in with her. Phone calls were rare then, as not everyone had ready access to one. A phone call usually brought bad news.
In another letter, my grandmother details the night the United States got word of the Armistice for World War I.
11–11–1918 Eva Thayer, my grandmother wrote: The whistles are blowing so that I cannot sleep. So I am writing this letter by candlelight at 5 A.M. I must be that the German representatives answered before the time limit was up for President Wilson has asked that here be no more celebrating till the official announcement from Washington. You see, the nation just about went wild last Thursday. Big parades were held and the great excitement in many places…
11–11–1918 Edward Clark responded: Last night we received news of the abdication of the Kaiser; today rumors of the armistice terms accepted. So, we expect peace very shortly now. And how happy this world will be!
News like that loses much of its relevance when conveyed in a text. So much of what we know about history is through the letters of the people who lived in those times. Can you imagine not having John and Abigail Adams’ letters during the founding of our country? John wrote in great detail the procedures they took in the First Continental Congress. The telegrams between Kaiser Wilhelm and Tzar Nicholas told the story of the disagreements and uprisings that marked the start of World War I. These historical documents show the familial relationship between the two men — they were cousins — and despite this connection, they were unable to stop their sides from going to war.
That’s what we lose when we don’t write letters — the thoughts and fears of the people experiencing historic events.
That’s not all we lose when we communicate using emojis and gifs via texts and emails, we also lose the personal touch conveyed in a note of condolence or one of celebration. I for one have gotten worse at sending a personal note to mark a special occasion. Sometimes, that acknowledgment is reduced to a heart emoji in the comments of a Facebook post. I know I’m not alone. But I do have a few friends who still send cards and letters to mark the special times we share. I love receiving them. I’ve told myself over and over I’m going to be better about sending them.
The language we use has also changed. Some school districts have even stopped teaching kids how to write in cursive. We still speak English, but we live in a society of shortcuts and acronyms when it comes to communication. Things like OMG and WTF express our astonishment and concern. We add a smiley face when we like something.
These shortcuts mark quite a contrast to the language of yesteryear. My grandparents were separated while she was in college and he was in Divinity school. In a letter to my grandmother, My Grandfather, Edward shared his love for her:
…It will take a life of long years filled with devotion to you and with many caresses and kisses and love-services, to, in any way adequately express my heart. But if God let me live, you will know someday, if not now, that Edward loves and loves only you.
I want you to know tonight, Eva girl, that my soul is full to overflowing with devotion to you. All that I am or hope to be, dear, I lay at your feet and hope and aspire to make you the happiest woman on earth.
Have I confessed too much? Are you surfeited with my protestations of regard? I assume you will not become tired nor indifferent with such an excess of revelation on my part. If you do, say so love.
There was a time we shared good and bad news through letters. They told our history to future generations better than any emoji or text message ever could.
I’m not saying we should abandon social media entirely. It certainly has carved out a place in our society, but we should make room for more traditional ways of communicating — like writing notes and letters.
Sending someone a birthday card or note to tell them you’re thinking of them becomes even more special because it’s a rarity. I for one pledge to do a better job sending cards and letters. I hope you’ll join me.