The Artistry of Meaningful Communication is Dead

The art of writing a letter
The art of writing a letter

I was surprised recently to receive a care package in the mail from my sister-in-law. Enclosed were a handwritten note, a gift of monogrammed stationary and a leather-bound journal for no apparent reason other than to say thank you for being “such a sweet and thoughtful aunt.” Incredibly touched by her gesture, the thoughtfulness reminded me of a time when I used to look forward to visiting the mailbox with anticipation and the letters I used to write.

We used to wait

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There’s a line from one of my favorite Arcade Fire songs, We Used to Wait that tugs at my heartstrings every time I hear these lyrics:

It seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what’s stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive

Can you honestly look at your computer or smartphone and viscerally feel something like a few typed characters on a glass screen with an emoticon can keep you alive?

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Jessica's grandmother in the 1940s dreaming up a party with a friend
Jessica’s grandmother in the 1940s
dreaming up a party with a friend

No, I don’t think so. But then again, I’m just an old fashioned soul.

When I think about writing letters I instantly envision romantic movies like The Notebook or I see images like this one of my grandmother who posed for a newspaper photo during the 1940s dreaming up plans for a swell party. Ken Burns’ PBS documentary The Civil War featured letters written between soldiers, families and long-distance loves capturing incredible stories of heartbreak, longing and fear. Without the narration of those letters, The Civil War documentary would not have weaved together as powerful a story.


Letters can last a lifetime. A text message is a fleeting thought.

The act of writing and receiving letters or having a personable conversation with someone was always something I enjoyed. Today, handwriting something on paper or picking up the phone to randomly call someone is rarely a thought. With constantly evolving technology and online social networks I wonder if our reliance on email, text messaging and social media is killing our ability to genuinely communicate with one another?

I’m in schools all the time and have noticed that kids struggle to make eye contact when you speak to them let alone carry on a meaningful conversation. I am an avid supporter of effectively using technology as a teaching tool with our kids, but I think our attention spans as a species are growing incredibly shorter by the day. The dehumanization of communication can’t be a good by-product of technology.

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The artful practice of composing a thoughtful, handwritten letter and dropping it in the mail is dead.

Thanks to new national education standards such as the Common Core there’s been debate recently about whether or not cursive should still be taught in our schools. The New York Times “Room for Debate” Opinion pages recently took on the subject Is Cursive Dead? I’m not proud of how poor my penmanship has become, but I have been known to write a good letter or two and I think our kids still need to learn how to write one too.

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The summer after high-school graduation a handful of boys (and one teacher – which looking back now is totally creepy) wrote me letters that consisted mainly of small talk and funny hand-drawn cartoons on the margins and envelopes. I looked forward to the ceremony of going out to the mailbox, finding an envelope, ripping it open, reading…and then rereading and writing back.

Who still does this? If they’re under the age of fifty, I can’t think of very many.

Origami note romance

Origami love notes
Origami love notes

One Christmas not too long ago I was short on cash and wasn’t sure how I was going to participate in the looming gift exchange with my then beau. Being a creative, thrifty person I found beautiful square origami paper and decided for the twenty-four days leading up to Christmas Day I would write thoughtful heartfelt daily reminders that told the love of my life why he was so important to me.

It was fun thinking up what things to say and I mailed each and every one of what became known as “the origami notes.” Once they were all sent I bought a manly looking leather box and intricately folded the notes into triangles carefully stacking them inside the box where they were stored beside the bed. Even though he and I are not together anymore, those beautiful notes were little acts of love, reminders that I’d like to think are still sitting in that box.

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An email, text or instant message might be a great way to get a quick point across but it’s nowhere close to being the same thing as a handwritten origami note. Think about it. When was the last time you received or wrote someone a handwritten note? I have some leftover origami paper. Maybe it’s time to write someone once again.

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