Push the Envelope: The Lost Art of Letter Writing

by Tetyana Margolina

Many years ago, when my sister and I were little girls, our dad introduced us to a family ritual, which he had adopted as soon as he left his father’s house at the age of fourteen. He moved a lot, from the polar region of Russia to Central Asia and Caucasus, and then to Ukraine. This ritual helped him, and later, it helped us, the next generation, to stay emotionally connected to our family through decades and through thousand of miles. Every Sunday, the whole family would sit down and write letters to our grandparents and other relatives. I must confess, it was met with certain resistance on our part, but eventually, writing letters by hand became a tradition for me, and I am very grateful to my dad for this.

A collection of letters written by a man to his granddaughter as he was approaching 100 years old. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Jlhopgood and used under a Creative Commons license.

A collection of letters written by a man to his granddaughter as he was approaching 100 years old. Photograph courtesy of flickr user Jlhopgood and used under a Creative Commons license.

The speed of distant point-to-point communication has increased significantly since the days when my family and I would convene on Sundays. With high-speed e-mail services, social networks, Skype, and text messaging, communication is now nearly instant, widely available, and affordable.

According to "The Email Statistics Reports," prepared by the Radicati Group, Inc., the number of email accounts globally has grown from 3.1 billion in 2011 to 3.9 billion. However, the volume of personal correspondence sent and received, even by e-mail, is expected to decrease because “consumers are now opting to use social networking sites, instant messaging, mobile IM, and text messaging for instantaneous communication with family and friends.” Social networking has grown from 2.4 in 2011 to 3.2 billion users in 2013 and is predicted to grow to over 4.8 billion users by the end of 2017.

With these developments in communication, the quality of personal correspondence has dropped significantly and keeps declining. Just ask yourself, when was the last time you wrote or read a really long letter from a friend or loved one? It is probably easier for us to guess what text font our spouse would choose rather than distinguish her or his handwriting from somebody else’s.

According to the multi-year study “The Household Diary Study,” initiated in 1987 and funded by USPS, there has been a steady trend in the volume of personal letters sent and received by US households. The percentage of personal correspondence in total mail received by US households dropped from 7.5 percent in 1987 to 2.9 percent in 2011, and first-class mail has dropped from 3.2 percent – about two pieces every three weeks – down to 1.5 percent – about one piece every three weeks. Not only has the total volume of personal correspondence sent by mail decreased, but the percentage of personal letters within this volume has also dropped. From 2009 to 2011, the share of personal letters in personal correspondence sent and received dropped by about 32.6 percent.

Interestingly, this research also noted that “households with Internet access (including both Broadband and Dial-up) receive more letters, holiday cards, and non-holiday greeting cards, compared to households without Internet access.” In my opinion, the reintroduction of handwritten letters can help us fill the gap between quality and quantity.

Writing letters by hand has obvious drawbacks. Postal delivery is much slower than any other modern means of communication, and writing a traditional letter requires a lot of effort and time, things that have become so precious in our busy lives. But these exact features can be beneficial with regard to personal correspondence. Let us have a closer look.

Handwriting is now nearly extinct. Did you know that 45 states no longer require schools to teach kids how to read and write in cursive? We are much more comfortable with cell phone texting, proficiency in touch-typing and fluency in computer key-tapping. At the same time it means that the physical act of writing will leave no room for multi-tasking, it will require our full attention and absolute presence here and now.

Snail mail is slow. Letters sent domestically usually take one to four days to arrive at their destination, while international mail can take three weeks, and sometimes even longer, to reach its recipient. This means that it would make no sense to write about any news or describe recent events. Instead of factual information, we would have to find something else to share, like thoughts and emotions.

Writing a letter by hand is time-consuming and demands effort – nothing like writing an electronic letter. Suffice to say, there are no backspace, delete or undo buttons, and no spellcheck! This different process gives a completely different outcome – unique, personal, and one-of-a-kind. Crossed-out words, questionable handwriting, and margin marks convey much more emotion than words themselves or emoticons can.
In many ways, writing a letter by hand could mean departing from our comfort zones, moving beyond our everyday limits, and pushing the envelope. But it will not require more than some stationery, a pen and a heart.

Think about it. Early morning; you go outside and head to your mailbox. You take your mail out, just usual stuff – junk mail, bills, and useless coupons. But wait, there is something different there. An envelope with your name on it written in such familiar handwriting… It may be from your parents, friend, or from your child, who happens to be far away from you right now. You might have spoken to them just recently, but this is different. Unlike e-mails or phone calls, a letter does not eat space and time as it goes through. It folds and preserves them, meaning they can be unfolded. You can go back and revisit your loved ones exactly as they were then and there. One day you could even meet yourself exactly as you were then and there, with a fresh lens.

It may never happen – your loved ones did not read this article. They may not know you are looking for a letter from them in your mailbox. It is now up to you. Go beyond your limits, push the envelope – write a letter.

About the author: Tetyana Margolina is originally from Ukraine. She was educated in Russia and Ukraine where she earned a Ph.D. in geophysics, physics of the ocean. Now Tetyana lives in Salinas and works in Monterey, California, as a research associate. Her research interests include data processing and ocean acoustics. Tetyana has been a proud member of the Naval Postgraduate School Toastmasters Club since 2012, and is now serving as a club VP of Education.

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2 comments on “Push the Envelope: The Lost Art of Letter Writing
  1. nancy stephens says:

    I loved your article,”Push the Envolope”. My two sisters, who live in Kansas and I have been writing and creating art to send
    to one another for 5 years. We do this each week, I mail to one sister and she forwards mine and hers to the other and then I get theirs. It sometimes is a big deal to sit and do yet the results are so rewarding.Thank you again for the article and the WIP.

  2. Joanna P. says:

    I have a handful of friends who still enjoy writing letters. It’s so nice to see their handwriting and they always choose cute stationery, which brightens my day and often reminds me of our playful side. It’s definitely an important ritual for me, even if I don’t do it on a regular basis. Using snail mail is sometimes even faster than email, since it’s so easy to overlook a message in your inbox!

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