A couple of days ago I was searching for a certain file in one of my “mementos” file boxes and happened to open several folders that contained hand-written letters. There they were – letters from my mother and from my father, written many years ago, letters from my brother Robert sent in the ’70’s from Heidelberg, Germany, where he still lives. There were wonderfully written letters from Dad’s brother Gene and his sister Burton, and even one written by my father to my mother early in their marriage. There were several wonderful letters, printed (and illustrated) in pencil, from my dear little brothers Charlie, Richard, Glenn and Stan that I have saved for these many years. And in another location, a nightstand drawer, is stored a letter from a dear friend of ours, now deceased, three pages long, perfectly written in her inimitable hand. And I can touch all these letters, feel them, turn them over, read and reread them, note and enjoy the differences in the paper, the ink used and in the handwriting styles. And in the unique handwriting of each person I can find traces of their personalities. Each person’s face and voice were easily recalled while reading these letters, knowing that each person’s hand and fingers actually touched the paper and held the pen as they wrote. There is an incredibly human quality in handwritten letters sadly missing in our communication today.
What a shame that those days of writing such letters to friends and loved ones seems to be forever gone. Yes, we might get more words written, sent and read, in today’s age of email and electronic messaging, but we have lost so much. We have lost the individuality conveyed on the written page and the personal quality of the writing. Indeed, even the content seemed to be conveyed more sensitively, lovingly and respectfully through actual handwriting. And back in those days, it was the only way to communicate – in writing. Yes, eventually some of us clacked out our letters on our noisy Smith Coronas or Remingtons, or enjoyed typing on electric typewriters, especially the then revolutionary IBM Selectric with its revolving “daisywheel” which not only made typing easy but also could erase our typos. But even a typed letter had more personality than an electronic message today. It was distinguished not only by the type itself and that occasional mistake but also by the choice of paper. And a friend or loved one’s actual fingers signed the letter, folded and secured it in the envelope, licked it, sealed it, addressed it, put the postage stamp on the envelope and dropped it into the mailbox. So in spite of the more impersonal typing, the writer still could share much of himself or herself with the reader.
But today, with all the methods of communication available to us, oddly at times it seems much more difficult to communicate. While email has remained my own favorite and most convenient method of exchanging personal news, opinion and impressions, many of my former email correspondents have veered into other methods, leaving me stranded. Some only call and seldom or never use email. Some have dropped both email and voice phone and instead exclusively message to my phone number. Others apparently exchange messages on Facebook, which I have never mastered and because of strong negative opinions about Facebook anyhow, simply do not care to learn. So if I need to communicate with someone, I am finding it increasingly difficult to remember if that particular person prefers a telephone call, an email message or what. And if I don’t remember accurately, that message may never be read because the email or the message was never noticed and so forever ignored.
For example, several people with whom I used to exchange emails seem now to restrict themselves exclusively to messaging, a method of communication which for me is relatively new. I have not yet come to enjoy this method since, being a fairly rapid and accurate typist, perhaps I just rebel at having to type with my thumbs on that small iPhone keyboard. Even when I go to messaging on my computer where I can type a message quickly the normal way, I often err when I hit “return” for a new paragraph, inadvertently sending what I have typed up to then and truncating the message. Also I have missed important messages from relatives or acquaintances who have chosen this method of communication. While I routinely check my email, I do not do the same for messages and if I miss that “ding” when a message arrives on my phone or miss the notification on the computer screen, then I may not get that message for days.
Another thing that bothers me about communication today is that many correspondents have almost entirely stopped using a greeting. I mean, when we write a traditional letter, typing it or using pen and paper, a greeting seems essential. We always begin with “Dear…….”, or the person’s name, or “Friends”, or something like that – we don’t simply start writing without acknowledging to whom we are writing. Yet today I receive so many messages and emails that simply start with the message. The sender has not bothered with the polite greeting or even my name at the beginning. A letter or message to my personal phone number or to my personal email address do not render a proper greeting redundant – I can’t help but feel ignored and a bit insulted. I know the sender may wish to get to the subject quickly but really, how much additional typing with the fingers (or thumbs) is required to make the message more personal and polite?
And today, even phone calls have changed. A long distance phone call from a distant loved one used to be an important and treasured event for many reasons, among them – calls decades ago were quite expensive and therefore might have to be planned ahead – you needed to know that the person being called was home and available to receive the call. Also they were quite rare, in contrast to today, when one’s cell phone can call anywhere anytime and far more cheaply. But along with the increasing number of phone calls over all kinds of distances, has come a careless and cavalier attitude toward them.
Several people whom I routinely call, simply do not answer their phones, evidently preferring instead to let their phones take a message, intending I am sure, to call back later. In fact, with the plethora of crank robocalls today (where are our lazy legislators on this issue, pray tell?), I too have fallen into this habit. if I do not recognize the number or if a recognizable name or location does not appear on the screen, I will ignore the call, assuming that if it’s important, the caller will leave a message. But I have missed a number of important urgent calls when I have not picked up. It’s incredible how clever robocalls have become, many even beginning with my area code and first three digits of my phone number (used to mean the “exchange”) so I’m tempted to pick up and when I do, present a gift, another operative phone number – mine, to sell and share with other robocallers. I even got one the other day from Pakistan (yes, I am sure it was their prime minister seeking my advice on an important matter). At any rate, calling and not having the phone answered is frustrating but, referring back to a paragraph above, maybe the person I’m trying to contact happens to be a “messager” and simply prefers those instead of voice calls.
As far as communicating via Facebook, forget it. I have come to despise Facebook as much as I loath its slimy founder/CEO and its arrogant chief operating officer. And I have de-friended many former Facebook “friends” for posting distasteful political or religious opinions and I am sure the favor has been returned by many whom I may have offended. But frankly, I no longer wish to see posted pictures of restaurant meals, childhood pictures, ugly babies, frightful pets, posters, videos, selfies, and other typical Facebook fare, all pompous presentations aimed at obtaining that coveted comment or at least that little thumbs-up.
I’m presently trying to extricate myself from Facebook but have been surprised and a bit daunted with how difficult it is. Some second thoughts for sure – there are many old friends and dear relatives there on Facebook that I do not wish to lose touch with. I just wish I could stay in touch in a more pleasing and dignified, pre-Facebook fashion. So when I finally do successfully bid Facebook farewell, I certainly hope I will have all their phone numbers and email addresses available.
I have equally strong opinions about calls with “Facetime” a relatively new feature provided when calling on smartphones. Looking at a caller’s face in such sharp detail and from different angles and attitudes, especially with the wide angle lens drawing out of the face is really not all that pleasant, no matter how dear the caller. And I fully realize that the sharp focus of a smartphone camera on my aged and ravaged countenance conveyed to a beloved or respected caller is likely a very unpleasant experience as well.
So to me, the written or typed word or the familiar voice on the telephone are quite enough. Yes, and perhaps old fashioned, particularly in an age of so many other means of communication available to us in this digital age. Hey, I have heard about them but neither care nor desire to learn how to use them – Twitter, Viber, Slack, Telegram, Signal, Instagram, WhatsApp (both now absorbed by Facebook) and many more I am sure, most completely unfamiliar to me – again, so many ways to communicate but none of them quite as meaningful as the old hand-written letter or even the modern email letter. And finally, as an examination of typical Facebook content will quickly reveal, I really do think that it’s ironic in this day and age, when there are so many ways to communicate, that it seems that we have increasingly less and less to say.