How the Social Media Generation Returned to the Written Word
When Millennials aren’t killing decades-old cultural elements, like casual dining and processed food, we’re breathing new life into old practices, like shaving with straight razors.
At first glance, it might seem strange that a generation often vilified for our impatience and love of screens would sit down and write something that takes days to arrive. As an early adopter of pre-Facebook social networks (and as someone with serial killer handwriting), I never thought I’d write more than a shopping list by hand again.
But something about digital communication is unsatisfying. And writing letters captures so many things that pixels and filters just don’t.
Stationery is expressive
The paper my friend chooses always tells me something about what’s new in her world before I even read it. And when I’m picking a card or piece of paper to write on, I can match the tone of the paper to what I plan to say. Will I gush about autumn’s storybook beauty on loose-leaf paper with maple leaves doodled in the margins? Or will I process a sad story between the lines of a black floral motif?
If you’ve never been to a stationery shop before, I encourage you to go. If you delight in sensory pleasures like fountain pens on thick paper, tracing your finger on glossy floral details, and rifling through empty journals, you will have a blast. (Can you tell I’m a Ravenclaw?)
Writing for one person is not a performance
If you’ve ever spent time on the internet as a woman, you’ve felt the pressure to curate your every move. Whether you’re planning an aesthetically pleasing but still totally authentic 9-grid or telling a story of loss in which you’re the phoenix rising from the ashes, you’re onstage. If you don’t perform – if you just say what you are feeling without framing it in one of the socially acceptable scripts of feeling – you’re open to criticism when you most need connection.
We have many scripts to follow, but one thread runs through them all: “My life is enviable.”
What happens to real friendships when the first thing we hear about most of them is “life is so good,” even when it isn’t?
In my friendships, we lost sight of one another’s struggles, believing that everything is great. We stopped checking on each other because we stopped seeing the hard things.
I hadn’t heard from my friend D’Arcy in a couple of months. We usually texted a few times a week and had a phone or video call about once a month. She finished grad school and entered the workforce around the time I started my side hustle, so we both got way busy way fast.
For the last 10+ years of my life, it’s been easy to conflate Facebook friendship with actual connection. D’Arcy and I stopped texting for months because of the unspoken understanding amongst most people these days: If no one’s been unfriended, the relationship remains healthy.
D’Arcy and I knew the major things about each other’s lives. She was engaged to her longtime boyfriend. I was newly married. She adopted pets. I adopted pets.
But I had no idea that between the wedding countdown posts and the Snapchats of furry friends there were tears, panic attacks, and entire weekends spent in bed.
The walls came down in the letter. Health problems affected her quality of life. She, too, was worried about money. Sometimes her relationship was stressful, too.
Taking away the need to make our thoughts acceptable for an audience put the empathy back in our friendship.
Writing challenges us to open up meaningfully
I struggle with talking about anything other than work. When I sit down to write a letter, it challenges me to think of things that my friends will actually want to hear about. Writing for one person encourages me to think about more than just the seven-day cycle of my life. It’s thinking beyond, “I’m good. You good?” What themes are coming up? What questions is life asking? What are my hopes for the near future?
Getting something personal in the mail sparks joy
Most of what I get in the mail is credit card offers, bills I already paid online, and conveniently perfunctory Amazon packages. But when I open the mailbox and there’s a letter or postcard, it’s like coming home to find my best friend parked in the driveway, surprising me from out of town.
Right now, I’m just a casual letter-writer. Sometimes dilatory. Often choppy. But building relationships through writing is just one thing I’d like to get better at.