My grandmothers always encouraged me to write letters. They gave me notecards for birthday and Christmas gifts. They occasionally dropped hints that they hadn’t heard from me in a while. Of course my 13 years old self hated stopping whatever I was doing to write a letter. But my 50 years old self can now see that we need to go back to the days of putting pen to paper and communicating directly, intimately, and thoughtfully.
Our social media habits are a source of ongoing consternation. It can be a way to communicate in meaningful ways. But too many of us say mean things behind the cover of the keyboard. Or we engage in political discourse that devolves into bitter one liners or exasperated rants. Sometimes, simple requests like seeking a recommendation for a good plumber or clarification of a public notice leads to invective.
I have a solution. We need to write to real human people who feel things, who love and are loved, and have free will. We need to take time for thought. We need to write with intention. A great way to do this is to write more letters! Here is my case:
--Letters take a long time to write and a long time to arrive in the mail. This gives one sufficient time to write calmly, to transcend any anger we’re feeling. Sure, someone can shoot off a letter in a fit of rage, but it is much less likely than the rage Tweet. In our hyper-paced world, we have lost so many opportunities to be contemplative. We need to spend more time in our heads, thinking of what we will say, what we really mean, the implications of our words, how it will be received by the one person who will see the letter.
--If I have a complaint with a neighbor it would be ridiculous for me to take out a full-page ad in the local paper to air out my grievance. A Facebook post about a frustrating neighbor is the 21st century equivalent of a full page ad. It makes far more sense to speak with my neighbor one on one.
--Letters are historically more formal. I’m not falling back on tradition, manners, or chivalry like I’m some kind of reactionary. The reason they were more formal is because they were attempting to be clear and respectful. Social media posts don’t always have clarity nor respect as a criteria.
--Writing a letter is time consuming, which means you won’t feel the need to respond to everything you see, or give your thoughts on everything. One of our big problems right now is we get to hear everyone’s opinion about everything; even when our uninvited interlocutor is completely uninformed, the opinion was not solicited nor appropriate. The great democratizing of commentary means that the most unpolished, uninformed, mean spirited, or angry commentator gets a platform.
--Writing a letter is slow. Writing in pen means you must be careful of mistakes. This means we have to think about what we say, be concise. It also means that letter-writing can be meditative. Mindful letter-writing might be just what you need in these anxious times.
--Because letters are addressed to a specific person, not seen by the public, we never have to worry about the receiver getting so offended that they threaten to sue you if you for defamation.
--When you write and send a letter in the US Mail, you support the US Postal Service, one of the great instruments of democracy that we have taken for granted. Your social media posts may seem “free” unless you consider the opportunity cost of the disinformation that is spread as these networks grow in use and power.
--Some letters are great works of historical literature. Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindu. Dorothy Day’s collected letters. Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.” Frederick Douglass’s Letter to Harriett Tubman. We have yet to see published “Uncle Frank’s Facebook Posts about Politics” or “@ConfederatePatriot123’s Tweets about racial justice” published and I don’t think we will.
--Social media gets posted in the cloud, on servers that also host pornography, Russian bots, and other toxic posts. Letters are written on paper--crisp white stationary, recycled printer paper, news print, cotton fiber. Which is better: the feel of ink sinking into the fibers of paper, sitting under a warm-lighted lamp, or the tip-tapping of keys as your eyes burn in front of an LED screen?
--Our social media posts are often for ourselves. We excoriate thieves and hypocrites and charlatans but pay little attention to our true motivations. To whom are we speaking? Are me ranting simply to make ourselves sound good, to reinforce our own moral superiority? In a letter, we are more likely to think about the ‘other’ to whom we write. The fact that our writings are not public means we are less likely to be calling people out simply to bolster our own selves.
--Finally, and most importantly, letters are addressed to a person, to be read by that person. They are not performative. Tweets and posts can be purely performative--it is understood that people other than the addressee will see it. This means we spend time thinking about how the public will receive it (perhaps more time than we really should!). In many cases, the ‘other’ that we are addressing gets completely lost and we are more concerned with wit, snark, and outrage. Letter writing can get us to consider the ‘other’ in ways that we have forgotten. They can rekindle the human relationship that has become so easy to take for granted in the digital age.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please write me a letter!