The lost arts of writing, listening

Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
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After writing the story about penpals who have kept in touch for nearly 60 years, I realized how much has truly changed over these past decades.

For a few years in junior high, I too had a French penpal. Our relationship lasted a few years, but then died off as, no doubt, we both got involved in other teenaged pursuits.

Back then, it would take hours, often days, to compose a letter and then re-write it carefully onto super-thin paper called onionskin. International postal rates were based on weight, so onionskin paper and envelopes saved on postage.

Keep in mind that doing this in a foreign language added a whole new layer to the process: translation.

So, you've carefully written and re-written your letter. You carry it off to the post office to be weighed, stamped and sent on its way by Air Mail. It would take about a week to get there, where the other party would spend days or weeks carefully crafting a reply and mailing that by Air Mail as well.

And so this back-and-forth continued. Over time, a great deal of time, we learned about each other's families, homes, pets, friends, and schools. Because everything was learned gradually, through a series of long-distance questions and answers, it was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle to which you added a few pieces at a time. With each letter, the "picture" of your penpal's life grew.

Today, what do we have? No one really writes letters. Yes, we use our computers to print letters we've composed on the computer; then we sign them and mail them off. Rather cold and impersonal, to be honest; but that's just as many would prefer.

When was the last time you saw stationery sets for sale in a store? You remember, the matching set of envelopes and paper for any personality or occasion. I'm sure it still exists, but I wouldn't even know where to start looking. (Oh, yeah, Froogle.com.)

What is most used these days to substitute for writing letters is e-mail. But even that is being replaced by Facebook and its even more insidious cousin Twitter.

Thanks to Facebook, you can learn all you'd ever care to know about someone in about 35 seconds: their work, education, and family. You can even glimpse their entire life in photos, if you're willing to spend the extra two minutes or so.

In Facebook posts and chats, everything is condensed to curt questions and answers, often with letters and numbers used in place of words. And it's immediate. "Whatcha doin' tonight?" "movies. wanna come?" "OK B there in 20." This is not a conversation.

Twitter is even worse. You're limited to 144 characters, and it's one-way only. You telling everyone, very succinctly, what you're up to. The plan, of course, is that there's someone "following" your "tweets" who actually cares what you're up to.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not against the technology or social media. In truth, it's all just an evolution of the original social media: cavemen gathered around a fire sharing hunting stories.

It's just that in the whir of instantaneous communication, the communicating part is often left hanging somewhere.

Over the coming days you may find yourself with groups of friends and family. I challenge you to actually communicate with them. Listen and learn from them.

Don't think about online friends looking for you, or what brilliant posts they've left for you. At least pretend that those who are physically in the same room with you are truly important.

Ask questions, and listen. You might truly be surprised at what you learn. (Whether you share what you learn on Facebook is your business, okay?)

Here's wishing you a very Merry (and in-person) Christmas, and a Happy (and sometimes analog) New Year!