I mailed my friend Mike a note of congratulation after he made Princeton Review’s list of top college professors. “Princeton could use a man like you, Mike!” I wrote, hoping he would recognize the Risky Business movie reference. He thanked me a few days later with an email. “I didn't know anyone sent anything through the mail anymore,” he wrote.
The simple act of hand-writing a note is being rapidly—and mistakenly—replaced by an even simpler one: posting on social media.
Social media culture is hurting more than just postal workers, stationery store owners, and sentimentalists. To form, strengthen, or repair a relationship we must give time and meaningful attention to the other person; that’s what I do when I hand-write a note. I think out the sentence, the spelling, the phrasing. I don’t write as quickly as I type, so that slows me down right away. There’s no backspace/delete if I don’t properly express the thought the first time, and, of course, I want to get the message just right—that slows me down even more. The physical acts of grabbing the card, finding the postal address, preparing the envelope, and affixing the stamp all take time, as well. As I chug through those mechanics, I think about the note’s recipient. This instinct doesn’t always come naturally; I have to make time and clear away distractions, if only for a few moments. But the result is more enduring and endearing than anything I could post on Twitter or Facebook, if only because the recipient knows that writing a note requires time and attention, not speed and multitasking. Email is efficient and easily delivered—good for communicating but perhaps not always as good for connecting. A hand-written note is tangible, unique. You can hold it in your hand and recognize the writer’s penmanship. It doesn’t look like anything else. It is special.
It’s true that many people don’t see themselves as writers. But most of us were at least casual writers not so long ago. During my freshman year of college in 1985, a crowd always gathered in the dorm lobby after lunch. We hovered, vulture-like, as the poor student mailman stuffed the small metal slots. The anticipation was palpable. I remember spending a sunny spring Friday afternoon sitting in an empty hallway in the engineering building and reading one such a letter from an ex-girlfriend. We hadn’t communicated since she broke it off; finding the letter in my mail slot was a shock. I carried it with me like an unopened gift, waiting until I had time and privacy to read it. It’s the only time I remember seeing her handwriting. Reading her girlish cursive on thin writing paper felt intimate and inviting, even though the words didn’t suggest a reunion, no matter how many times I searched the script for subtle clues.
In 1990, when my then girlfriend (now wife) was in graduate school in Illinois and I was working in Florida, we sent each other letters and cards. We also spoke on the phone, of course, but any deeper connection was reserved for the written word, since email was nascent and social media non-existent. I once sent Melanie $50 to help pay one of her bills, and in the accompanying letter told her not to worry because I had plenty of money, underlining the words for emphasis. She still has the letter, and we still laugh about how “rich” I was with my meager salary as a cub newspaper reporter. I can’t say I remember sitting down and writing those letters. But I remember thinking about Melanie, worrying about her, feeling a grown-up thrill at being able to help her out. (After 23 years of marriage, I’m now the one asking her for cash.) I wasn’t always in such a rush back then.
I received hand-written or typed notes from editors at the newspaper where I worked. One note simply congratulated me for properly using the word “enormity” in a story.
Even in the early and middle part of the ’90s, still before email washed over us, I received hand-written or typed notes from editors at the newspaper where I worked. One note simply congratulated me for properly using the word “enormity” in a story. Some people laughed at the editor who sent the most notes, which were scribbled or typed on small blue pieces of paper affixed with stickers (how corny!). But I kept every one—someone had cared enough to write a few words of praise. I eventually became an editor myself, and written notes became part of my practice.
I struggle to find just the right words, but that’s good: If it comes too easily, then it’s not sincere. I feel a stronger sense of connection when I write those notes to my reporters. I once wrote a short note to a photographer congratulating him on a breaking news shot. I checked yesterday and it’s still displayed on his desk—five years later. Another time, I sent our court reporter a note attached to a small box of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran to congratulate her on “two scoops” she scored on a busy news day. I suppose I could have sent the same words in an email, embedding a picture of a cereal box. But it was more fun to share a laugh with her when I handed over the real thing.
Social media isn’t without merit. Far from it. Its speed is nice when I’m congratulating a friend who just had a baby or scored a promotion at work. Tweeting and posting a Facebook status or comment is easy, so I don’t risk forgetting or putting off the task, as I might with a note. I also like the collective nature of social media. When my friend Colleen announced on Facebook that she was moving from Florida to North Carolina, it was heartening to join the immediate chorus of wistful congratulations—and to read Colleen’s occasional responses throughout the day as the comment thread grew longer.
Social media isn’t soulless, despite all these dire warnings that the internet is stripping our connectedness and making us lonely. When someone reaches out through social media, I certainly feel a connection. I take these morsel-messages and expand them, through association and memory, until they swell into something bigger and more meaningful. If I had posted my congratulatory note to Mike on Twitter instead of writing it by hand, the sentiment wouldn’t have meant any less to him. In fact, it might have meant even more, in a way, since other people would have seen it and chimed in with their own jokes and words of praise.
But even if there is nothing inherently wrong with social media, I know I’m missing something when I keep my pen in my desk drawer. I type rapid-fire and engage in witty back-and-forth, writing on screens crowded with instant messages and blinking notifications. The recipient doesn’t fully occupy my thoughts. Nothing fully occupies my thoughts. Everything is scattered—what writer Alex Mar calls the “incessant digital static of the Internet.”
It’s not just the message’s recipient who misses out when we communicate this way—it’s also the messenger himself. “If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would,” Zadie Smith said of Facebook in 2010. “What we actually want to do is the bare minimum.”
If Smith is wrong, if I actually want to do more than the bare minimum, then hand-writing personal notes is the first step in making a stand. As much as I wish I could, I can’t slow down many parts of my life. I can’t pick up and visit a friend who lives six states away. But I can slow down long enough to pick up a pen and show an old friend, literally in word and deed, that I care. I once sent a poet acquaintance a note about her new book. She posted it right above her computer. I’m sure her closer friends sent well wishes, but maybe mine resonated more because of the medium.
Jonathan Franzen notes that with technology and media saturating us, a novel can no longer promise to bring world or national news to its readers. Similarly, social media and email have replaced written notes as our personal news vessels. But there remains something valuable, beyond the reported facts, to express.
I buy my personal stationery at Pen and Ink, a store that is the exact opposite, in size and hipness, of an Apple store.
Will our friends and family miss the notes they never got from us in the first place? Perhaps not. The ease, ubiquity, and special vocabulary of social media—and email, for that matter—have made us all big communicators. But that makes it more important than ever to lodge some meaningful entries along with the throwaways. What better way to achieve this than to hand-write a note? If nothing else, the shock factor works in the writer’s favor. My card certainly got Mike’s attention—and he teaches print journalism.
I’m not arguing for a return to the Downton Abbey days, when hand-written notes were constantly written and then delivered—for the upstairs crowd, anyway—on silver trays. In truth, the frequent note-writing of the past was a function of limited options: If past generations had Facebook, they would have used it. But I’d like to think they wouldn’t have only used social media. Sometimes it seems we’ve forgotten the choice. The pen hasn’t become obsolete; what’s becoming obsolete is the notion that the slower of two options could sometimes be the one worth choosing.
I buy my personal stationery at Pen and Ink, a shoebox-sized store that my friend Susan owns in our hometown of Ocala, Fla. The shop’s big sellers are cute invitations: sports-themed cards for kids’ birthdays and funny stork drawings for baby showers. Pen and Ink is the exact opposite, in size and hipness, of an Apple store.
During a recent visit I looked through the thick, oversized sample pack of stationery, considered various options, and then settled on what I always get: 50 heavy stock cards, white, with my name printed at the top along a neat blue border. I placed the order, left the store, and continued a midday walk through my town’s historic district. I strode along Fort King Street, a leafy road lined with stately homes, most of which have been transformed into professional offices. I could hear the traffic noise from Silver Springs Boulevard, the busy commercial strip just one block to the north.
Before long the store clerk called my iPhone. Turns out the cards were on sale and I had paid too much. She offered a refund, but I didn’t want to double back. How about store credit? This new box of cards wouldn’t last me very long, I told her. We both laughed. Then I hung up the phone, put it back in my pocket, and continued walking east, against the traffic.