I have unscientifically determined that texting is to my generation as letter-writing was to our grandparents’ generation (and all the generations before theirs), at least in the context of dating and relationships. Some scholars bemoan the state of our writing saying no one really learns how to properly write anymore (which, I think, is partially true) or even likes to write, but I would say with the Internet and technology, people are actually writing more than ever, just not necessarily always at the highest of literary/intellectual standards. No one is going to argue “Hey bae, I love u” is anywhere on the same level as Byron or Tennyson, but the sentiments are generally the same (for the record, I had to look up “bae” on Urban Dictionary #Imgettingold).
Let’s look at our grandparents and great-grandparents for a second. Technology was much more limited. People had telephones, sure, but letter-writing was still an effective and important means of communication. You didn’t talk to people on the phone every day, because it still cost a lot of money, so letter-writing was a way to pour out all your thoughts and feelings for just the price of a stamp (which back then, at least around WWII, would have been 3-5 cents). Letters made feelings and worlds tangible; it gave them actual physical weight. Without unlimited access to cameras, you had to describe everything you saw in vivid detail so the letter-reader could see what you saw, smell what you smelled, hear what you heard (song cue: “Do You Hear What I Hear?”). And you would clamor for that next letter, sometimes for a week or a month or more, and as you did, you’d spend hours analyzing every word of the current letter, committing portions to memory. You became hungry for more words from your pen pal, sometimes ravenously so. And the waiting could drive you mad with worry or lust or desperation or love (sound familiar, Millennials?).
The letters from decades and even a couple centuries past are a thing of real beauty because no one writes to each other like THAT anymore (at least, not that I am aware of). Some are almost shocking in their open declarations of love and passion; probably because we have this idea that people from the past are all stuffy and proper when really they were just like any other human being with tons of feelings pulling them every which way. Epistolary romances are basically extinct, and it’s sad to think I will never probably know what it’s like to have someone write to me with such esteem and honesty, to express enamor in such a way. It’s an art rapidly being lost every minute each day. When I think of the great love letters of all time—Beethoven and his Immortal Beloved, Napoleon Bonaparte and his Josephine, Elizabeth and Robert Barrett Browning, etc—I think how much of their souls these people let bleed through the ink of their pens onto paper. That’s why there are so many grandmothers with bushels of old letters carefully preserved in dusty trunks in their attics: because to throw them away would be like throwing away the person who wrote them.
My generation, the Millennials, has grown up with rapidly changing technology. The older of us Millennials may even be the last kids to formally learn how to write in cursive at school. We burrow ourselves into our online personalities, which we carefully construct and sculpt to look the way we want other people to see us. We live in this oddity of a half-virtual, half-real world, and the two are always shaping one another whether it’s Instagramming our meals or checking in to cool places/events on 4Square or Facebook. Communication and the sharing of our “personalities” is a constant, daily practice for us. We feel more naked without our smartphones than we do wearing our barely-there crop-tops.
And dating? Well, there’s an app for that (or a hundred). Meeting people has never been easier. These days with Tinder, it’s literally a swipe of your fingertips across your phone (The lamest conclusion to a “how I met your mother/father” story, which is good news for Ted Mosby).
Most of us barely use our phones for actual CALLS these days. No. If you want to get a hold of your Millennial child/friend/whatever, you better text us. We’d rather type with our thumbs than talk. Thus, our preferred method of communicating with our objects of affection is texting, the most personal form of the impersonal virtual contact we allow. And here is where I think we can find some common ground with our elders, because texting both plays into AND against my generation’s dependency on instant gratification. Texting is where we flirt and express ourselves, but many times, it becomes a game, and that’s when it becomes less about communication and more about the act of texting itself. We create all these weird, nonexistent rules for ourselves in this game, rules that drive us crazy. For instance, how soon can I text him/her back without seeming clingy? If he/she texts me three times in a row, can I text them back three times in a row? Do I make him wait two hours before texting back? She didn’t text me back right away, so does she not like me? It goes on and on.
But guess what? Those rules aren’t even real. (“They were real that day I wore a vest!”) We make them up to ease our discomfort with the unknown much like our grandparents and great-grandparents probably made up hundreds of scenarios to explain why they hadn’t received a letter in a reasonable amount of time. We send texts out into a void (ooh the void with the Cybermen) and hope beyond hope we’ll hear back from that person instantly. Each message notification ding becomes a trigger for our happiness and self-worth (Pavlov would have a field day with us “dogs.”). We long to hear back from that other person. We pine. And when we do finally hear back from them, it sends endorphins rushing through our bodies. The older generations devoured their letters to each other, and now the younger generation just as eagerly devours our texts to one another. But my generation no longer has to spend time describing something; we can just send a photo along or a video of where we are, so in a way, we’re writing letters like our grandparents but with technology this time.
Do I wish I had something more tangible to remember romances of old? Yes, and I’m rather jealous of past generations for having such beautiful correspondences they can hold onto and read forever. I regularly preach the power of keeping a hand-written journal of ANY kind and how it unlocks your brain and feelings in ways nothing else does. I finished my first ever 200 page journal in May (covering a two-year timespan of my life) and have already started filling a new one, and it means more to me than anything else I’ve written, because I can see and feel those words, their meaning; I can remember how I felt writing them. No matter how great texting feels short-term, it doesn’t carry the same kind of emotional weight in the long-term as something handwritten. But the times they are a-changin’ and even if we all took the time to write each other proper letters, we wouldn’t have the patience or discipline to keep it up. After all, letters were just conversations spread out over pages and time, and now we can have those conversations more rapidly, for better or worse.
Which reminds me…I have a guy to text back.