5 Things That Mean The Love Letter is Not Dead
I was working in France last month. Even though my days were busy, for each of eight nights Barbara and I had a date night; free of kids, cooking, dishes, and dogwalks. As is our custom, we both dress up for dinner, and since that takes longer for Barbara than it does for me (although getting my hair just right does take a while!) I go down to the restaurant first, and order a glass of white wine. And while she deals with the finishing touches, I take a greeting card and pen, and hand-write my gorgeous wife a love note. These aren’t short: about 300-600 words. And I do it every night, so you can see above the (hopefully blurred into illegibility) eight cards I wrote her on this most recent business trip.
You can now say “awwwww” but that’s not my point. According to my kids, I am old and almost dead: maybe it’s not surprising that a 50 year old enjoys writing with pen and paper so much? Surely, you say, the kids today are all digital, all the time? Perhaps not: in a recent focus group I did in collaboration with the Canada Media Fund, I wasn’t planning to talk about writing letters or cards. But the young people (18-24) in attendance brought it up themselves. They talked, with considerable feeling, about how they would like to – at least occasionally – take pen in hand and write, in the old fashioned sense.
I have a theory! I think that digital and text and screens and keyboards are all great. But handwritten letters or cards have five Ps: Pen and Paper are Powerful, Passionate, Personal, Private and Permanent.
Powerful: Anything that we do infrequently has a bigger impact. In a world where we receive hundreds or even thousands of emails and text messages per day, the fact that someone takes the time to find a card, buy it, save it somewhere safe, and then find a pen (where the heck did I put that, etc.) and hand deliver it will ALWAYS impress the recipient.
Passionate: Many studies show that our brains and what we write are different with pen and ink than on a keyboard. We remember what we write better, and we are more involved. We pick shorter words, which are more effective. We are physically involved in a way that tapping on a keyboard doesn’t access…and we pour our heart out as a result. Further, if it is more than a few words, then writing a card causes a sixth P: pain! Back in the day, nearly every right handed adult had a callus on the middle finger of their right hand, caused by holding a pen too firmly. As I have discovered during my card-writing sprees, my now-dainty hand isn’t nearly tough enough to write for more than five minutes without it hurting. Hurts so good, as John Cougar would have said.
Personal: Human beings reveal themselves in our handwriting. Unlike a standard font from a digital device, our physical cursive or printed script is unique to each of us. But the physical card or letter is also unique to the recipient. A text message reading “I miss you…want to get together?” could be merely one of 50 similar messages sent out on a lonely Saturday night. The handwritten equivalent is a unique artifact, which gives it enormously greater meaning and value.
Private: A text message could be intercepted, or go to the wrong address. A copy might be left on the sender’s smartphone, readable to anyone who accesses the device. Same with the recipient’s phone. Worse, the recipient might forward a text to hundreds of their closest friends, with a “Can you believe this?” attached. In contrast, a written card leaves no trace, except a bit of ink on my right hand. It could be sent to others, but not easily. Perhaps most importantly, it feels private: that moment when you give someone a written card and watch them read it in front of you is a deeply intimate act.
Permanent: This is a complicated angle. The Snapchat generation sometimes loves the idea that some things are impermanent…messages vanishing forever after only 10 seconds. But they have also been through the experience of losing all their files when they lose their phone, or a password, or a cloud provider goes out of business. Kids today have all heard their great-grandparent’s stories of having a “shoebox full of love letters.” They laugh, but there is a bit of envy there too: what records will they be able to access so easily 50 years from now?
Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a prediction that younger demographics are going to throw away their laptops and smartphones, and that we should all be out buying shares in Bic. (Trading at €99.47 on Friday, and with a 2.6% yield! Did you even know Bic was publicly traded???)
But I think there is a view that younger people don’t even know how to write with a pen, and don’t care that they don’t. And that when the last person my age dies, the handwritten card will be as extinct as the dinosaurs.
I don’t think that is true. Listening to young people, I think they are aware of the magic and emotion of those cards, and will continue to write them for many years.