June 1st, 2016

The next best thing to being there

Today there are more ways than ever to stay in touch with family and friends and, as I am discovering, each has its own preferred modes of expression, rules of etiquette, advantages, and risks.

For a few days last month, I traded emails with three friends whom I have known for more than 50 years as we shared our reactions to the passing of Daniel Berrigan, the priest, poet and antiwar activist who inspired many of our generation.

The constraints of time and distance limit our face-to-face encounters to only a few times a year but emails, texts, and periodic phone contact keep us tuned in to one another’s lives.

The four of us came of age long before the advent of the information superhighway and the spread of digital communication. The only thing digital about our correspondence was the use of our thumbs and forefingers to hold the pens that we used to record the events of our lives.

After sending one of these friends an email in our conversation about Father Berrigan, I re-read one of the letters that he had sent to me when I was abroad during the summer between high school and college. I wanted to see for myself the difference between an email and a letter, to remember what was so important 50 years ago and to appreciate what still endures.

The letter itself endures. It is neatly folded on that light, crinkly paper we used for airmail to distant places and tucked into a “Via Air Mail” envelope with a red, white and blue border. This is not to say that we cannot print and save our emails but, if my own habits of managing correspondence offer any clue, this is something that we do selectively if at all. I am not sure how many emails survive as hard copies after half a century.

The handwriting endures. And it is legible. Our elementary school classes in penmanship made sure of that. It is a wonder that despite the uniformity of instruction and the clarity of our writing, the individuality of the writer is not lost.

One person’s flourishes are another’s points and edges, loops are narrow or wide, words are compressed or extended, and letters stand only as tall as the writer decides. Today our digital media give us an array of fonts far broader than traditional typefaces but infinitely more limited than the work of a pen in hand.

The message endures though the content is different. The message of any letter between friends is simple and unchanging. I am thinking about you and wondering how your life is going. This is the news from here. What’s happening with you? Fifty years ago, my friend sent news from home, telling me about his short-lived summer job as a door-to-door salesman, passing along greetings from mutual friends and commenting on what I had written about my adventures abroad.

Today, we send emails and texts sharing news about our families and friends, commenting on world affairs, sporting events, and, as we did earlier in the day, the passing of public figures whom we admired.

These digital messages are often more spontaneous and fresh than letters and sometimes lead to a flurry of quick exchanges that feels like a real conversation. On more than one occasion, I have watched a televised basketball game with friends in distant locations, each of us commenting on the ebb and flow of the game, the more spectacular plays, bad calls, and the ultimate outcome. We congratulated or consoled one another in real time as if we were all together in the same room.

I have discovered through trial and error that texting has its own set of social norms, especially apparent when sending messages across generational lines. You can always spot a newbie, usually someone of my own generation, by his habit of starting a text with the name of the recipient and, even worse, signing off with his own name.

Hi there Julius, Let’s do lunch in the forum on March 15th. Your pal, Brutus. I’m sure Julius’s twenty-something son told his Dad to watch out for this guy who was apparently clueless about appropriate social behavior. I have also learned never to respond to a text with a phone call, even though it is logical to assume that if someone sends you a text, they are there with phone in hand and available to have a real conversation. Maybe they aren’t.

There will always be those who decry new modes of communication in preference for traditional ones. Plato thought that writing would be the death of memory and the church feared that Gutenberg’s printing press would undermine its authority by putting sacred texts in the hands of the faithful.
f, as Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message, some might worry that rampant texting will lead to a proliferation of exclamation points. Heaven forbid! I’m not one of them. I have opened my heart in emails and quoted philosophers in text messages. I have also texted to say that I will be late for a meeting and to arrange a time for a real telephone conversation. And some occasions simply require pen and ink. Today there are more ways than ever to keep in touch with family and friends and our connections with others are just too important not to use them all.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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