Saturday, September 22, 2007

Communication and Old Letters

I am not a member of the letter writing generation. I think this gave my grandparents and, in turn, my parents, much grief. Especially when I went off to college and tried to pretend I didn't have a family. You see, I was brought up with a telephone. When I wanted to communicate with people, I picked up the phone. I didn't have to go through an operator first. In fact, I thought Lily Tomlin's telephone operator had a strange occupation. Yes, it's true that I was attached to the wall, stuck in the room in which the phone was kept, but we did have three phones in our house so my choices were vast (as far as I was concerned) about where to have this conversation.

Now, I don't tell you this to age myself (although I know a corded dial phone does put me into a certain age bracket). I tell you because a few interesting things happened recently to show me the difference between letter writers and phone callers.

The first was my mother. She has been spending the summer and subsequent month cleaning out an apartment that was shared by my grandparents and my great aunt for 45 years. And she just found a box full of love letters. Yes, love letters! Who has those anymore? Apparently, my grandparents quite prolifically professed their love to each other. And one of them, or maybe both, saved every letter. So my mother and her brother spent an emotional day learning about the courtship between my grandmother and grandfather. And discovering her parents all over again. Her best story: My grandmother writing a letter to my grandfather reprimanding him for some wrongdoing. My mother is now hunting for the letter explaining just what he did to deserve such harsh words. And while she was telling me this, I realized my daughter would never find letters like this from her father and me. Cards, sure, signed with great affection. But not letters.

The second was an e-mail I received from a student. It began with a "Hey, Girlfriend." I was so taken aback by the opening, I barely registered the reason for the e-mail.

And the third was a few conversations, three to be exact, I've had with friends over misunderstandings brought about through texting.

One of the things letter writers had to learn was how to get nuances of language into writing. They had to make sure to get their point across without being misconstrued. So sarcasm was out. So were quick, explanation-less comments. There was a formality to letters, regardless of the relationship between the writer and receiver.

Those of us from the telephone generation did not have to learn these skills. Sarcasm works well on the phone. Tone of voice is everything in humor. Emotion could be poured out easily and less formally. My husband and I spent hours on the phone during our courtship, talking about...I don't even remember anymore. But I know I didn't worry about being formal and proper. I didn't agonize over every word.

But here we are, telephone people, talkers...thrust into a world of - gasp - writing. It might not be letters but we write blogs and twits and chat in chat rooms and send e-mails. And with all of it, we use telephone talk. Relaxed, full of emotion or emotionless, sarcastic, humorous...and, so many times, misunderstood. Maybe it is time for us to realize that we have skills to learn about writing that our grandparents (or great-grandparents for all you young-uns out there) learned early on. Or maybe we need to be more forgiving. Or both. At least until we learn how to navigate these new waters. My grandparents would be proud.


Cathy Nelson said...

Lisa that was moving beyond words.

Colleen said...

Great post, Lisa.

We had a phone in the upstairs bathroom and it was the only place I could talk privately in high school. You have no idea how many hours I literally spent in the bathroom.

I almost never wrote a letter. I never thought about that before. Communication was in person or over the phone. We have entered a brave new world.

As one who has not yet figured out how to blend my personality with text based communication, I appreciate this post more than you know...or do you?

Rachel Boyd said...

Hi Lisa,

Just wanted to touch base after 'meeting' you today! Have added you to my zillions of feeds ;)

I think I was forced to be a member of the letter writing generation... I am thinking back to having to write all of those thank you letters for birthday and xmas etc. I remember once that I called my Nana one year instead and thanked her, I thought that was better than a letter. I still got in trouble for not writing a letter months later!

Later on in high school, I remember writing A LOT of notes... however I soon realised how concrete they were and how they could be used against you!

What a GREAT post - you are right that we have to learn how to better deal with our 'new' medium of communication.

It's certainly reflective of conversations I've had with my class over how we need to write on our class blog for our audience.

Rachel, NZ