FUNNY BUSINESS: The art of letter writing: before the text generation

October 20, 2008

My sister's kids, Deniece and Denephew, think it is just hilarious to watch their fumbling uncle trying to send a text message-which has recently become the No. 1 use of cell phones, instead of talking.

I poke and prod one measly letter at a time. Meanwhile, the kids-with agile thumbs and secondnature knowledge of a cell phone touch pad-are incredible. To watch them is to see an intricate ballet of the opposable digits (pas de pouces) performed at lightning speed. It took Lincoln a little under two minutes to deliver the Gettysburg Address. I believe your average teenager could text the entire thing in about 15 seconds.

Of course, it wouldn't look anything like Lincoln's version. Instead of "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" they'd likely write:

"4 scr & 7 yrs ago r 4fthrs brt 4th n ths cont nu ntion, cncved n lbrty n ddc8td 2 prpstn all mn R cr8td =."

After which they would no doubt add a smiley face.

There are people out there who believe this is communicating. Perhaps. By that standard, so is Pictionary. But is it effective communication? Not by me. You can't call something effective when you have to send a message back saying "What did you say?"

Which, by the way, I can now do in a little under a-minute-and-a-half.

What's worse, I see this carrying over into other writing. I taught journalism for a while and received-no kidding-papers riddled with computer abbreviations and emoticons, not to mention the clunky Western Union language of people raised in the age of instant messaging and emails, instead of proper letters.

I don't want to turn this into a jeremiad, but I am a little concerned about the state of letter-writing today, especially when you consider that the emoticon-addled LOL-er of today is going to be sending out correspondence on your business letterhead tomorrow.

The nice thing is, some students shared my concern, especially after I played them a CD that includes a recitation of a letter from the days when people REALLY wrote letters. It's from the Civil War. Union officer Sullivan Ballou. He is writing to his wife on the eve of Bull Run, the battle that would take his life:

"Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

"The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me-perhaps it is he wafted prayer of my little Edgar-that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

"Forgive my many au , an e many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

"But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night-amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours-always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

"Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again."

That, my friends, is letter writing. And no text message will ever come close.



Redmond is an author, columnist and speaker, and a consultant on business writing and workplace issues. His column appears monthly. You can reach him at mredmond@ibj.com.
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