Letter Writing in the Age of Instant Communication

I did a project in April (that bled into May, and eventually June) called Letter Writing Month. The goal was to write 30 letters to 30 different people in 30 days. I ended up taking longer, and wrote to about 34 different people, some of them several times.

It’s remarkable how well the project helped me realize that modern-day “instant” communication is a huge trigger for my anxiety. There’s something about the supposedly instantaneous methods of communicating that makes them incredibly stressful.

I told my counsellor at our last session that I hate e-mail (and texting). She raised her eyebrows, saying that it surprised her that “someone articulate like me” would hate e-mail. I didn’t have time to explain, as our session was coming to an end, but the reflection she made has stuck with me. She’s right, I am an articulate person. I love to write. Creative, persuasive, expository, poetic – anything really. But e-mail is TERRIFYING.

Reasons why e-mail is really scary:

  1. I don’t know if the person has received it.
  2. Even if they did receive it, it could have gone to their junk.
  3. They aren’t necessarily going to read it, regardless of if they received it.
  4. I don’t know what their schedule is for replying, so I don’t know how unreasonable I’m being when the person doesn’t respond for a week or more.
  5. E-mailing someone again because they haven’t gotten back to me is just worse, because repeat all the above steps AND add on the worry that I’m bothering them by e-mailing twice about the same thing.
  6. I don’t know how the person will interpret my words.
    1. What if they think my sign off is pretentious, or my salutation is rude or not formal enough?
    2. They might think the structure of my e-mail is too long or too short or too split up or too hard to read.
    3. They could misinterpret something I say, or take it the wrong way, and I might insult them or they might not understand me and then I’ll need to reply to explain. Repeat all the above steps, but with more anxiety, because now I’ve gotten off on the wrong foot.

Texting has a similar list of reasons why it’s really scary:

  1. I do know that the person has received it (“Delivered” shows underneath, even if they don’t have read receipts turned on), but if they don’t respond to me for hours, or even days, I have to wonder WHYYY.
  2. I don’t know if they read it, regardless of if they received it.
  3. Because people tend to respond to texts faster than e-mails, I know they’re ignoring me OR they legitimately missed my message after a couple of days (sometimes I open a message without knowing, and because it doesn’t show as “unread” anymore, I forget or don’t notice it’s there. I check through my messages for this every couple of days, but not everyone is as neurotic as me.).
  4. Texting someone again because they haven’t gotten back to you is just worse, because repeat all the above steps AND add on the worry that I’m bothering them by texting twice about the same thing.
  5. I don’t know how the person will interpret your words.
    1. They might think the structure of my text is too long or too short or too split up or too hard to read.
    2. What if they think my emojis are annoying?
    3. They could misinterpret something I say, or take it the wrong way, and I might insult them or they might not understand me and then I’ll need to reply to explain. Repeat all the above steps, but with more anxiety, because now I’ve gotten off on the wrong foot.
  6. Read receipts. To turn them on or not to turn them on?
    1. When my anxiety wasn’t as bad, it was definitely turn them on. And I liked other people to have them on, too. It comforted me to know that they’d read my message, because I knew for sure if they were ignoring me or not (if they’d read and not replied to my message, they were). I liked to have mine on because I prided myself on being a quick and attentive responder, and liked them to know that I wasn’t ignoring them if I wasn’t responding – “Delivered” meant that I hadn’t seen it yet. “Read” meant that I had and I would be responding soon.
    2. Currently my anxiety is pretty bad and they’re off. If I’m feeling super anxious, I don’t want the pressure of replying to a message right away just because I know they know I’ve seen it. I also prefer other people’s to be off, because then I can suspend my disbelief about them not having seen the message yet. If it’s just “Delivered,” I can tell myself they haven’t had the chance to see it yet. If it’s “Read,” and they haven’t answered for four days, WHY ARE THEY IGNORING ME DO THEY HATE ME??

For these reasons and more, I prefer in-person communication. I can say the same thing I would have said in an e-mail or text, and the person sitting beside me or across from me has to answer. Even if they don’t do a very good job with words, body language and facial expressions tell a story. I don’t have to trust notoriously glitchy technological media to reliably relay my message for me.

However, modern life circumstances have me living thousands of kilometres away from many of my closest friends. I have really close friends in California, Ontario, Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. I like to keep in touch. In person is generally not possible, and Skype and phone conversations are becoming increasingly difficult due to time differences and time constraints. We are all very busy people.

This is where letter writing comes in.

The letter writing project was eye-opening and wonderful. I started at least two, perhaps three or four regular letter writing relationships through it, and they bring me so much joy. A couple of them are even with people I wasn’t really friends with before. We just knew each other through high school and had each other on Facebook. I originally posted there about the project and asked if there were people who wanted to receive a letter. The way the relationships developed was so organic. It turned out that the things I wrote about were things that interested them. They also thought letter writing was really fun and magical, and we just clicked. You can’t get that from an e-mail!

Letter writing takes away all the things that make me anxious that go along with texting or e-mail. It leaves the essence of communication that brings so much happiness and joy into my life – connecting with people. And I can be as long-winded as I like, so there isn’t much room for misinterpretation.

Letters are formal in their own way, like e-mails. However, I feel less constrained by formalities and the way you’re supposed to write e-mails when I’m letter writing.

I also don’t have to worry if they’ve received it. Generally, a letter either arrives at its destination or it shows back up in your mailbox. Canada Post might suck for a lot of reasons, but they’re nothing if not reliable (except to my dad and step-mom’s house, but that’s another story).

Finally, I don’t send letters intending to receive a reply. I ask questions, but if I don’t get an answer, that’s fine. I find I never worry if a person is going to reply to a letter I send them. In the pen-pal relationships I’ve developed, I tend to know that they will. I put it out of my mind, and when the letter comes in the mail, it’s a wonderful surprise that makes my day.

There’s just something magical about receiving a letter in the mail. I have always loved getting mail. It feels special. There’s so much that goes into it that it just inherently means more.

With letter writing, the personality and the care that are put in are evident before the recipient even reads the first word. You carefully choose stationery (or in my case, create – I paint paper in watercolours). You pick a writing utensil. One of the people who has started being my pen-pal writes with fountain pens. Awesome. Also, in general, letters are handwritten, which in itself takes more time and care than writing on a computer. You address the envelope, stamp it, and take it to a mailbox. Many people handle it and take care of it before it arrives in your mailbox, to finally be read and responded to. Wonderful.

I definitely plan to continue the trend of writing more letters in the future. I hope that more pen-pal relationships develop, and I hope that I re-kindle more relationships that have stagnated thanks to my fears surrounding modern communication methods.

Most of all, I hope the magic stays alive.


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A Vancouverite that grew up in the Maritimes, I'm a married, millennial, rugby-playing, PNW-exploring high school teacher who loves reading, art, and nature. And I have generalized anxiety disorder.

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