Friendship & Good Conversation through the Lost Art of Letters

This past year some friends and I have taken up letter-writing as means of correspondence, both friends who live in the same town as I and those some leagues away. In light of my fruitful experiences in this endeavour, I want to share its benefits and encourage you to take up this worthy exploit. 

Contra Technologium 

In this age of instant messaging, free long-distance calls, and video calls, in which emails are seen as the time-consuming means of communication, letter-writing provides an antithesis to the instantaneousness that we have grown accustomed to. The distance between word and thought in days past had generally two forms: insofar as one thought before speaking, in verbal conversation; and inasmuch time as it took for the postal service to finish its journey. Likely most of us speak with far too little thinking, and now we have generally lost the second, slower, form of communication. For the time it takes for me to send a text, post a comment, or even reply to an email is not much more time than it takes to speak. And phone calls have made letter-writing seem idle and vain. But in letter-writing, I am presented with a unique opportunity to think much before I communicate. It is not that writing takes so terribly long (although the knowledge that my hand will tire does cause me to use my words more effectively and concisely). But knowing that the other will not receive my reply for some days removes the felt need to reply as quickly. The required effort and time encourage me to give more thought to what I am saying. And this teaches me over time to become more thoughtful in my words (I’ve heard of doing this even for short stories—writing them on paper before transmitting them to a computer—and if I took the time to do this with my blog posts, perhaps they would come out much better). This is not to say that texting has no place, nor that we ought not be grateful for phone and video calls. But there are benefits to letter-writing that other means lack, benefits which I think we especially lack today. But fear not: There is a remedy, and it just takes a pen, parchment, and patience. (If you do not have a friend who is willing, try finding a pen pal!) 

An Aid to Good Conversation 

Letter-writing has also promoted good conversation among me and my friends. Letter-writing banishes nearly all idle chatter, and it both elevates and deepens the topics we discuss and the avenues we explore. For when you realise that the other will await your letter for days and open it only to find general comments about the weather, the news, or Covid-19, you will usually throw out such things altogether. And it elevates and deepens the conversation (and almost always the relationship) in two ways. 

First, it encourages one to speak concisely, as we have said, as well as fully: Since one is expected to write more than a paragraph or two (except in thank-you letters, as discussed later), one feels compelled to flesh out thoughts and answer questions more fully. It is a wonderful middle ground, in which I must use my words concisely and intentionally but also must speak fully, avoiding idle words yet providing a host of good ones. 

Second, unless one writes much on one topic—and even then this may hold—one feels free to discuss different things, and different sorts of things. My letter, and our conversation, may pertain to how I am (how I really am, to which the answer cannot simply ‘fine’, ‘good’, or ‘great’), to a specific event in my life, to my life as of late, and to a subject which doesn’t relate to our personal lives but holds both our interests—be it literary, political, religious, philosophical, or melittological (relating the the study of bees). And this is something rarely found in verbal conversation in the same way. In verbal conversation, the conversation might stick only to one subject, or often it goes down different avenues, not returning to one from before. This is a good and lovely thing. But in letter-writing we find a different good: the ability to address each topic individually, one at a time, and yet these topics travel parallel to one another since each one is developed in the same letter—it’s as if we are discussing multiple things at the same time! 

And just as letter-writing encourages us to be thoughtful in our words, it teaches us to be patient and attend to others’ thoughts fully, without interrupting them. Next time you are in conversation, try waiting three seconds after someone finishes speaking before you say something yourself. It will show you two things: How thoughtful you are in speech, and how good of a listener the other person is. I am horrid at giving others time to speak, and I interrupt far too much. That’s not to mention how little I think before speaking (and really it is, I think, because I fear not being given the chance to speak—so I must think, rightly or not, that others are as uninterested in what I have to say as I am in what they have to say). This could be for a different blog post. It is good to think on and become aware of, so that we can practise better conversation. But the benefit of letter-writing is that this problem is removed: I cannot interrupt you, I must wait for you to formulate your response and then give it, and I have ample time to do the same. 

Further Fair Findings

Here are a few other things we should appreciate about this lost art. It expresses intentionality and care for the conversation and means of communication, which thus expresses intentionality and care for the friendship and the other person. A text shows little thought or care (if you know me, the reason I don’t respond to your texts is not because I don’t care about you, but rather because I care so little for texting), a phone or video call is easy, and if we are being honest we nearly all have at least a hundred unread emails because we don’t really know what to do with email or we forget about it (it also doesn’t require much time or care). But for me, receiving a letter from someone means I am important to him. It means he thinks I am worth investing all the time required for the above benefits to our conversation, which means he values me and our friendship. This applies to letter-writing by regular correspondence, as well as to spontaneous letters and to thank-you, thinking-of-you, and sympathy letters (even invitations and post-cards). I recently received a letter from a friend which was just a short but sincere thank-you for something I did for him, and an expression of gratefulness for our friendship and of love for me. That intentionality and care meant a lot to me. I also appreciated that he used a specific card with a unique image on the front (but no text like ‘Thank you!’, which I personally dislike). My grandmother writes probably two letters per day, most of them thank-you and thinking-of-you cards (she has done that when she can’t sleep, as well). She is well-loved by many, most of all because she loves so well. This is but one example of how she loves others, but I find it a rare, significant, and lovely thing. Ask people what they are most inclined to save: test message history, emails, or a letter? I have saved many letters, and to my memory have thrown away none in which someone invested many words. 

Friendship & Good Conversation 

In closing, I exhort both you and myself to reclaim the great art of writing letters, for all of the above reasons, but most of all because it will help us to build fruitful friendships. True friendship is one of the greatest goods in life, as says the Wise Man: ‘Nothing can be compared to a faithful friend, and no weight of gold and silver is able to countervail the goodness of his fidelity. A faithful friend is the medicine of life and immortality: and they that fear the Lord, shall find him.’ (Sirach 6:15-16) And the way we usually begin, and always nurture, strengthen, and grow in friendship is through good conversation: Conversation about real things, conversation that is sincere and motivated by love and interest in the other person and their life. A good conversation may be about something serious or deep, or it may be about something humorous or genial. To avoid vain and idle chatter does not mean to avoid topics that are not serious or profound. (An overly serious person is almost as poor a conversationalist as a frivolous person.) Rather, to avoid empty conversation means that one’s words are motivated by love for the other more than by self-interest, and that they are based on truth, seeking good, and inspired by beauty. A good conversation may be about the death of a loved one, or about a ridiculous personal experience that invites mirth and laughter. It may concern a book which one finds intriguing or wonderful, or it may relate to a seemingly small but delightful thing. It is not so concerned with lofty words or with filling silence—for silence is one of the best and most important parts of conversation—but finds interest in the other person, seeks truth, desires virtue in oneself and the other, values good things, and delights in what is lovely and glorious. We often do not know what these things are, or how to find them. But we do so by friendship with God in prayer (especially in silence), by spending time seeking true and good things and enjoying the beautiful, and by friendship with others, most of all in pursuing and practising good conversation. Why then should we not avail ourselves of so good a means of this as letter-writing, in addition to verbal means? So let us take up our pens! that we may set them down unto good conversation and fruitful friendship.

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