Recently, I watched Brian Dennehy and Carol Burnett portray the lead characters in “Love Letters,” a unique play written by A.R. Gurney. Throughout the performance at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway, Dennehy and Burnett remain seated at a simple wooden desk positioned center stage. Without looking at each other until the very end, the actors take turns reading excerpts from a lifetime’s worth of fictional correspondence, all sent and received by snail mail. Within these emotional letters spanning several decades is a trove of human experience between two people who didn’t interact with each other in person all that much, but who clearly loved one another.
To children of the Internet, the idea of sitting down to draft a handwritten letter expressing heartfelt affection for another human can sound wonderfully romantic—until a hand cramps because it’s been years since we’ve exercised the right muscles. It takes a mere smudge of ink or a single lapse in word choice to make us crave the clean, easily edited beauty of black font on a white screen. We are blinking cursor addicts dependent upon the right to delete and rewrite ad infinitum.
Truthfully, I have never written a proper love letter, at least not one that doesn’t fit onto a Post-it. But while sitting next to my boyfriend during Gurney’s play, for the first time I wondered whether we social media savvy millennials might be the ones missing out. Whether or not there’s an overall cost or benefit to hyper connectedness, below I’ve listed 3 reasons why it might be worth forgetting about the Internet once in a while to channel old-fashioned letter writing times.
1. Anticipation is an aphrodisiac.
The carefully chosen notification sounds you’ve linked to various inboxes can trigger the release of dopamine in your brain. But they can also drive you crazy after a while. Like the high from any good drug, the stream of instant gratification we get from receiving new digital messages feels awesome—until it doesn’t anymore. There’s only so long a ding! can provide the same amount of pleasure before you need more and more dings! to experience the same reward level.
Back in the day, writers and recipients of letters didn’t face this problem. Instead, they had to wait for responses, which might sound terribly boring and needlessly archaic, until you consider the upside of anticipation. To quote A.A. Milne: “Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
Remember the weeks spent looking forward to your last vacation, or the long car ride with friends on the road to a weekend getaway? As it happens, our brains are really good at enjoying the process of envisioning what’s about to come. Winnie the Pooh was on the mark in that the act of anticipating something often trumps your actual experience of it. So there’s value in being forced to wait for something, be it a date, a trip, or a piece of mail.
2. Information overload isn’t sexy.
How do you assess someone’s level of interest without counting the number of times they “like” your posts in a given timeframe? How do you build a relationship without sending regular texts, and maybe a sext or two? How do you trust someone without first combing through their social media feeds so you can make snap judgments based on past activity?
You just do.
For generations, people coupled up knowing less about each other than you “know” about your best friend’s younger sister’s cousin. Maybe some folks could have saved themselves time and heartache by uncovering a key detail about their sociopathic partner earlier than they managed to, but I’m guessing that the limited availability of personal information was mostly beneficial to everyone on the dating front. If anything, it’s nice to imagine sitting down to dinner and learning about a person from the actual source rather than trying to fact check a bunch of preconceived notions based on aspects of their Internet web presence, or lack thereof. Wouldn’t we all be better off posing a question (e.g. “what did you do today?” or “which downtown hole-in-the-wall restaurant is it that you frequent with college buddies on the first Tuesday of every month?”) without having to pretend we don’t already know the answer?
3. We’re all wasting our time over-analyzing everything.
Overall, we like to think that modern technology makes us more efficient. It’s difficult to imagine functioning in a world stripped of smartphones and WiFi and the constant check-ins they enable—with friends, coworkers, family, and potential romantic partners. That said, connectedness can promote a nauseating, counterproductive amount of over-analyzing, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.
How many young people today refuse to form a final thought or hit send on a reply without scrolling through previous conversations and sending screenshots of pertinent excerpts to friends for additional input? I’d venture that when communicating by handwritten letter, people weren’t inclined to transcribe entire passages and forward them along to friends for clarity. Instead, they had to trust their instincts, and in the cases that they were wrong, learn to move on. If you can’t see the dignity in making your own choices rather than leaning on others’ opinions and second hand observations, hopefully you can at least recognize the amount of time you’ll save by streamlining the decision making process.