A few weeks ago, before I decided to travel to the UK, I sent postcards to London, and Martinique. In a sudden and unexpected turn-of-events, I arrived in London before the postcard did…
A couple of years ago there was a postal strike in Canada and a lot of people asked “Is postal service obsolete? The government discussed cutting delivery down to three days a week because in the advent of E-mail, Facebook, blogs, Twitter… who sends letters anymore?
Elizabeth Renzetti wrote in The Globe and Mail that “Nobody has ever felt their eyes well up at the arrival of a tweet. No one is going to be clutching a bundle of tweets on their deathbed. E-mails are not redolent of old people’s sock drawers, the way envelopes containing birthday money are. Facebook is a fusillade of vacation photos and cat miscellany, but a letter is a guided missile to one person’s heart.”
Why is the sentiment conveyed in a letter really of more value than a tweet or a Facebook message? I mean, come on: getting a guy to text you a feeling these days is an uphill battle, much less write them out detail. Isn’t receiving an “I miss you” tweet from a remote country just as meaningful as a four-page letter from France, or have we lowered our standards?
There are two reasons we may ascribe more worth to a hand-written letter: the association with effort and delayed gratification. The time and effort it takes (especially in the digital age) to find a pen, a paper, an envelope, a stamp and a mailbox, not to mention the drafting of the letter, makes it seem more valuable.
Conversely, reading the same words through different media should not undermine their worth, right? So that’s where delayed gratification comes in—with value placed on time in our “I’m so0o0o busy” instant gratification world makes our brains say “You waited longer for this hand-written mailed letter therefore it is of higher value than something received almost immediately.”
Last summer when my partner and I had returned to our respective homes in London and Toronto, we wrote each other almost every day. Letters often so long that when I read them over I joke that they should be made into a movie—a romantic dramedy, The E-book or Messages to Tom maybe. We spent a long time drafting those messages and the length of time it took me to receive them didn’t matter. Even short ones made me happy—I was being thought of. I never took it granted that we could write each other regularly; I would wait with anticipation until I could check my messages again.
I think people in my age group are much more used to (and more comfortable) communicating digitally and therefore in writing. Shouldn’t a phone call then be more valued more highly? I hate the phone and I partially blame MSN Messenger for my inability to be verbally articulate.
On the other hand, we didn’t always have the sorts of technology we have now so nostalgia is still elicited when we have a physical item. It’s the reason people still buy books and not Kindles or write down to-do lists instead of typing it into their iPhones. It also gives us a sense of control and permanence—we didn’t always have smartphones but we definitely always had a pen and paper. I imagine this is changing among the millennial generation; I heard a rumour they have terrible handwriting and are no longer learning to cursive write.
Letters do not flash an anxiety-inducing red light (for this reason, I do not at present have a cell phone) at you and books don’t threaten to run out of power. The physical item can display character that appeals to multiple senses—the soldier who is reminded of his beloved by her perfume, the smell of an old book or the sound of cracking a new book’s spine (personally I try to avoid that…).
Just because higher value association is a trick of the brain doesn’t mean it’s not a part of our reality, something I always forget as a former psychology student. I keep letters and I keep messages; I appreciate birthday cards and postcards but I was also really excited when a good friend of mine went backpacking in Southeast Asia and sent me a Facebook message. I think that’s where we are in my generation—somewhere in between traditional and digital. Tradigital, if you will.
Do you still send postcards when you travel? Or are your friends and family happy with E-mails and Instagram photos?