January 24, 2019

The Lost Art of Letter and Thank You Note Writing


Two thoughts from two month have reminded me of something from my younger days that was so common as to escape notice: receiving written letters, thank you notes, or invitations in the mail. Today, to receive any of these is cause for pause. Letters are e-mails, thank you notes are usually Dayspring e-mail cards, and Evite handles almost all invitations to parties or special happenings.

What brought this to mind was a reminder of the book written by recently deceased President George H.W. Bush. It is simply hundreds of pages of letters he wrote to his parents during the war, his wife to be, and all the world leaders or people he interacted with during his long political career. The fascinating part is the content: the writings are centered on his love and empathy for others, his deepening and sustaining friendships through personal communication, and his creative side. You may or may not have agreed with his politics, but this book is as far from political as one can travel. It is about a caring, intelligent, sensitive man who used words and letters to touch others.



The second thing that promoted this post were two thank you notes from dear friends. Betty and I had an opportunity to help them with a party that was important to them. What we did was both fun and allowed us to do something for them. Within days both husband and wife sent us handwritten thank you notes that were personal and meaningful. An e-mail or Hallmark card wouldn't have been the same.

My mom made it quite clear to me that as soon as I was able to hold a pen I was expected to send thank you notes after every Christmas and birthday. Invitations were to be hand-written by me. Any gift, for any reason, triggered a note. I have slipped over the last few years, though Betty and I still have a drawer full of thank you, sympathy, or  thinking of you cards. I must admit, though, Internet choices see a lot of activity from me.



courtesy imgur.com
Another couple we count as friends have an amazing collection of fountain pens. They are not used for writing, just as pieces of art on display. As beautiful as they are, it is kind of sad to see them not serving their original purpose.

Writing letters is no longer part of my normal experience, either writing or receiving. Part of the reason is quite simple: I have very few friends anymore that don't live here. I've lost contact with almost everyone else, so there is almost no one for me to write to.


Thinking back to a post of several years ago about the U.S. Postal Service, this lack of writing and mailing is a major reason that organization is fighting for its life. Only junk mail, magazines (another hurting segment), and an occasional bill find their way into my mailbox. Millions of first class pieces of mail aren't written anymore and bills arrive electronically, so the post office is in trouble.


No one needs to remind us that texting, Facebooking, or Tweeting are the preferred way to communicate by everyone under 40, and many over that age. Cursive writing, proper spelling and grammar are barely taught in school anymore. Long form writing is pretty much confined to blogs, and rough drafts of graduate thesis papers, and book writing. Of course, virtually all of that writing is done on a computer so spelling and grammar checkers can catch mistakes and the end result can be e-mailed to someone else as an attachment. Actually putting pen to paper doesn't happen.


I am not an old curmudgeon saying we should all go back to the old ways. There would be no Satisfying Retirement blog if I wrote everything out first on a yellow legal pad. I love (no, I need) my spell checker and the ability to write faster and (hopefully) better. But, there are times when I long for the days of handwritten thank you notes and the personal letter that took time and effort to craft.


No great message here, just a sense of loss when I realize letter writing and thank you notes are likely to disappear completely with our generation.


Did you send any thank you notes after the holidays? Did you receive any? 



22 comments:

  1. I still send letters & thank you notes; they seem far more personal. I continue to send Christmas cards to select people as well; not just a card with my signature but a short missive of life in the hills. My granddaughters live 3+ hrs away. If i haven't seen them for a month, I send them a handwritten note, even though we communicate in other ways as well. They enjoy receiving something in the mail, including a photo of some activity we've done. A friend did ministry in his church with a men's group and he promoted letter writing. He practices it with his grown grandchildren. He has received calls from his grandchildren to remind him that it's his turn to write. He says it promotes a unique connection.

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    1. Good for you, and your family, for understanding the importance of actual letter/note writing. When we RV-traveled, I know our grandkids loved receiving individual postcards from us from various places around the country.

      I became involved in prison ministry through letter-writing to a fellow who was nearing the end of his sentence. It was our first real communication.

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  2. Thank you notes---well, sometimes. I send them more for sweet gestures then physical objects. I do send my grands notes and letters so they will get mail. I love that my grands get on the phone and thank us for things that we give them. Better yet, when they are playing or wearing something that we gave---and they say, "You and Papa gave this to me!" The only time I expect a note-of any kind- is when I send something far away. There is an assumption that it was received, but it is nice to know.
    I don't do Christmas cards- too many people shamed those as being self serving in the 1980s. Now I am out of the habit.
    Penning a letter happens more often on my desk. My mother in law kept all of our letters we sent her when we were first married. Different then thank you notes- but that art is going as well. I spent many hours reading letters between my "young" grandparents and their parents during WWI. Makes me feel like I know people who are long passed. I printed out my son's emails to us while he was overseas as well....the written note. Nothing better to a historian.

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    1. Well, that is interesting. At one point Betty discovered a batch of letters sent from her father to her mother while he was stationed overseas during WWII. She discovered a new side to her dad through those letters.

      I was raised by my parents to send thank you notes for everything, but, that is one "habit" I have lost, I am sorry to say.

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  3. Good morning, Bob (and all!) - This resonated with me, as over the past few years I have been trying to write more actual letters & notes. It started with a Christmas gift to my daughter - the gift was my commitment to her to write her a real letter once a month for the next year.

    That was several years ago, and I have continued. With my effort to put pen to paper, I want her to have in her hand some tangible evidence that she is loved, something she can tuck into purse or pocket to read and re-read at her leisure.

    And, on sympathy cards, I always take the time to write a real note, sharing some memory of their loved one whenever I can. I have a long way to go, but it feels important to me to keep these “handmade” connections alive. My next challenge is to send monthly cards or letters to each of my grandchildren, and that feels a bit more daunting.

    On other hand, I actually do appreciate the availability of email and text messages, as sometimes that brief acknowledgement will be the only thank-you received these days! (Do I sound like a curmudgeon or what??)

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    1. Not a curmudgeon, but a realist.

      Sympathy cards are something we do send. Luckily, the need for those has occurred very rarely so far, but I am sure the future will see more being sent.

      Since our grandkids live 5 minutes away, we have no problem staying close. But, if they move away when older and I can still write, I will. Getting something personal like that does say a lot.

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  4. I didn't send or receive any thank you notes at Christmas but that's because we generally only exchange gifts among our immediate family when we're all together. I did send small trinkets to a couple of young, far away friends and received a thank you text accompanied by photos of them with their gifts - very sweet.

    Since they were little tykes, we always stressed to our kids that a gift represented a lot of effort made on their behalf. Receiving a gift meant that someone spent their time and their money shopping for, wrapping and, maybe, mailing that gift, simply because they liked or loved you and were thinking about you on your special occasion. That kind of effort deserved both acknowledgement and appreciation and that's why we wrote thank you notes.

    While I truly appreciate the benefits of technology, I feel it's a double-edged sword. It does make life easier in so many respects, but it also serves to distance us from others at times. A friend (in her sixties) recently commented that ours is one of the only actual greeting cards that she and her husband receive on their birthdays and anniversary. While social media helps us stay in touch, written personal correspondence is becoming a lost art. Is it simply a trend that's dying out or is it a real loss to society? Time will tell. It does bother me that some schools are no longer teaching penmanship. But I believe the reason it bothers me so much is not that I'm overly attached to penmanship, but that the change represents cutting ties to the past. Who is to say that it's right, wrong or simply different?

    I'll continue to send Christmas cards and family newsletters as long as I'm able to, as well as greeting cards and thank you notes. I remember how thrilled I was as a youngster when I received my own mail. I enjoy sending personal correspondence and I always hope that, even as adults, my friends and family members are still delighted to receive something especially for them in the mail. I see these little gestures as true day brighteners - for both the sender and the recipient.

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    1. We probably receive only two or three actual Christmas cards each year, and nothing for birthdays or anniversaries. That is primarily because almost all of our family lives here. The few mailed communications come from a brother back east and a friend or two who live in different parts of the country.

      Personally, I don't miss the expense involved in sending holiday cards since rarely was anything personal added to the stock greeting already printed inside. But, I agree with you that, even today, receiving something in the mail from someone I know brightens up the day.

      Not teaching children cursive writing in schools is a serious mistake. Imagine a time in the future when the Internet goes down for some reason...how will those who can't write be able to communicate? It is sort of like watching a young person try to figure out a rotary phone. With no buttons they are lost.

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    2. Things move on. Bemoaning the lack of cursive writing is like being upset that no one can read Latin anymore, which was one of my mother's pet peeves.

      Young people are resourceful and smart, should the internet go away they'll figure it out and probably a lot faster than us oldies figure out all the new stuff ;-)

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  5. When my MIL was alive, I used to write to her weekly. Much cheaper than long distance calls across the country. She really appreciated that, and I enjoyed doing it. Liked you, I was taught to write thank you notes for gifts. I admit I have issues with the grandkids who don't acknowledge gifts at all. Even a text would be welcome. A couple of years ago I sent a thank you note for a Christmas gift to my sister a day or two after Christmas. When she didn't get immediate acknowledgement via e-mail, she got really upset and thought I didn't like her gift. Now she gets an email instead of a card. Her loss, imho.

    Sheila

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    1. If I lived somewhere other than right around the corner, I too would want some acknowledgement of gifts from grandkids and family, at least a phone call. A quick text, "I got it.👌 THX" wouldn't do it.

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  6. So funny -- I just dropped two notes in the mailbox before I saw your post. But I confess, I only sent the notes because I did not have the recipients' email addresses. Most of my thank yous are now by email, text, or a phone call. But all my thank yous are definitely more than "got it thanks."

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  7. Like you, I was trained to write thank you notes, and I still love an actual letter in the mailbox. My MIL and I traded letters before she got dementia. And I have one daughter who always writes a great note inside her thank you cards (she doesn't live nearby). I write thank you notes for gifts to my mom and her husband and she does the same. Of my four brothers, one writes thank you notes and his kids did too when we were still trading gifts in their younger years. But overall, yes, it's a dying art.

    We do send holiday cards, and I love getting them. But the list has been shrinking over the past five years. I keep a spreadsheet and over time if we don't get a card from someone, I assume they've given up the practice. The ones with no message are just OK, but many of the pictures cards show kids growing up, travels by our friends, etc. They're more fun than a purchased card with nothing written inside IMO. I do notice less of the flowery Christmas letters than in the past - probably because of social media? The internet is taking over everything. On one hand, it's a loss. But we also got a personally composed party invitation this fall with a great picture of the people we would be celebrating - something we were unlikely to receive in a paper invitation (and easier to save than the print version).

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    1. One of my brothers and his wife continue a tradition begun years ago by our parents: an end-of-the-year family wrap up letter. Other than that, we are really an email-oriented family.While I miss the old days, I will be the first top admit the Internet instead of the post office is easier.

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    2. BTW, I was able to sell some lovely pens (fountain and otherwise) online that I wasn't using. It's part of my downsizing effort. Worked well and...cash. :-)

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  8. When Brett and I were downsizing to move to Hawaii, I discovered a box in the garage that contained ALL the letters we had written each other back when he was in the navy, and out on a cruise. We pretty much wrote each other every day, and some of those letters were definitely NSFW. Mail was crazy back then - there was no way to tell what would arrive when or how long you would go between letters (it was the same whether you were on the ship or back home). You could mail four letters in a row, but only three would arrive with #4 not showing up for another three weeks. Or #2 would go missing for weeks. So, while I enjoyed receiving written letters (and writing them), I got burned out, and these days am more than grateful for email. While it was fun to get things in the mailbox, I still appreciate being able to hear more frequently from friends and my children than I would if I were waiting for something to arrive in the mail, even if it's only a few sentences. Same for photos - I receive far more photos of my grandchildren via email and messaging than I would if my son or daughter-in-law had to mail them from Japan.

    My children are all pretty much unfamiliar with sending things through the mail, but they are good about sending thank you notes online. This past Christmas though the girls each received a generous (early) red envelope for Chinese New Year from a friend of mine. One daughter created a beautiful hand-drawn card, they all wrote thank you notes in Chinese, etc. . . and then completely forgot to mail it! Sigh. (Thank you notes were sent via email and my friend was fine with that, but she would have loved that card and the written Chinese). All of my children did learn handwriting - we insisted. It doesn't get used much, but they can both read and write it.

    BTW, after going through all of our letters to each other and reminiscing, we shredded them all.

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    1. Since those letters contained some things you wouldn't necessarily want future generations to read, shredding sounds like a wise plan.

      Sending and exchanging photos through photo-sharing services, posting on Facebook, or as email attachments are definitely better options than the time-consuming, expensive days of waiting for film to be developed, ordering multiple reprints, and trudging to the post office to send everyone to family and friends.

      BTW, your travels seem to be going well. The Indian posts are amazing.

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  9. I was never a letter writer, and as such I did go through the phase that when I sent a thank you or Christmas card, it would be covered with writing to make up for the lack of letters. I am fine with an email thank you or a phone call thank you for most things. I suppose I still expect a thank you for wedding and shower type gifts, find it interesteing in that in the last few years we've at two weddings in our family. The twenty somethings sent out a "save the date", wedding invitations, shower invitations, brunch the day after the overnight invitations and rehearsal invitations. On the other hand the fifty somethings (for whom this is the first marriage of both), did almost everything electronically. and both were, in my opiion okay.

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    1. That is interesting, and the reverse of what someone might have predicted. Bottom line: we are adaptable. The form of communication is less important than the fact that it occurs.

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  10. When I was 10, my best friend’s family moved away, and we began a letter writing correspondence that lasted for years. I loved getting a letter from “K” and she loved receiving one from me as well. We tended to write them in cloloured felt pens, and decorated them liberally with silly drawings. Thinking that we were very amusing, we also wrote little notes to the postmistress on the outside of the envelopes. I believe that I still have a collection of K’s letter in a box somewhere. We attended the same university and were roommates, but then we moved to different cities and the letter writing resumed. Although we don’t write letters any more, we still keep in touch regularly by phoning each other a couple of times a month. Also we text quite frequently. I really like the immediacy of texting to keep in touch with grown kids and distant friends. And, yes, I’m one of those people who still sends Christmas cards.

    Jude

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