Somewhere in the foreseeable past, writing personal emails was a pleasure. The nanoseconds between hovering my arrow over "Compose" and clicking the button was holy, a portal that led me from the constrictive living world to the unending possibilities of the written one. Poising my fingers over the keyboard was very much akin to pinching my pen over a gridded notepad, noodling over a journal entry. No topic was too mundane, nor too esoteric, nor too cliche, nor too grandiose to break down word by word. The only thing not worth saying was nothing at all.
In those emails, my friends and I covered and uncovered everything from what the hell it could possibly mean to grow up (I miss being 16. I miss the innocence and the hysteria of trying to understand everything all at once, my best friend confided), to how we thought in the moment (You know how when you wait too long before going out and then you're late and you're like frantically scrambling for your things? That's how I felt when I read the "gather your armor" line. MY ARMOR? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO GATHER IT...I DON'T EVEN KNOW IF IT'S CLEAN!, one of my favorite people ever responded to an article I shared), to how spectacularly we were failing (i was all excited to start grad school. thinking that there'd be some great clarity. but of course there isn't. is there ever clarity? isn't clarity just realizing that this is life? murky, sinuous and forever a question? seriously. does this ever get easier? one of the most contemplative friends I have questioned both really and rhetorically).
At it's best, instant personal correspondence manages to transcend the fact that it's all on a screen and evokes the feeling of a well-scripted conversation between friends who know one another inside out.
One of my favorite correspondences goes like this:
Subject: Yes You Can
I'm resisting the urge to ask you how you're feeling about the flight. I'm sure you're anxious. So instead I'll ask you what kind of breakfast food you'd want to be if you could/had to?
Subject: RE: Yes You Can
I'm pretty sure I have pancreatic cancer.
Subject: RE RE: Yes You Can
Seems logical. I kid, I kid.
Subject: RE RE RE: Yes You Can
Between me and A:
A: just close your eyes and pretend you're at the dentist's office when you're on the plane
me: with boobs in my face?
A: boobs and all
maybe a flight attendant will humor you
or sue you
If I was a breakfast food, I'd be cinnamon toast. Not for everyone, but those that like me really like me. Like, REALLY like me.
What about you?
Subject: RE RE RE RE: Yes You Can
You've got some of that pain and symptoms. But a lot of it sounds different. So...hopeful? But yeah, an invasive procedure might be worth it. "You can't put a price on peace of mind," is what I would say if I were a 1960's dad who drove a station wagon and had a mustache.
You get boobs at the dentist? Weird. But that seems like a reasonable plan.
I'd be scrambled eggs. I go with everything and they are delicious.
Much like the notes we passed in high school and the letters mailed throughout college, I can't bring myself to put these emails in the trash. Within the confines of their virtual boxes is the story of my life.
All the same can be said for my online dating life, which back in 2007, always began with the exchange of carefully crafted works. This was the early days of online dating, when Match and OkCupid really ran the show, and it was expected that I'd hear from a potential eventual ex-boyfriend by means of a paragraph or two (even three wasn't uncommon!). I'd respond in kind (careful not to say too much as my penchant for words leaves me won’t to do), and we'd lather, rinse and repeat until we met up or fizzled out.
Yet I've noticed a few disturbing trends in my personal correspondence.* In an effort to ease any misperceived sense of peevishness based on unprecedented brevity, I've been starting - or ending - far too many emails with this disclaimer: I'm so sorry I've been short-winded lately!
But worse still, not only has the quantity of words gone down though, something far worse is at stake: the quality of my emails have plummeted, too. The sentences are shorter. The details vaguer. The typos aplenty. The introspectiveness dropping like a hot sweet potato accidentally inserted into a hungry mouth far too soon, and the whimsically cavalier nature of it all burned down like an unplanned forest fire till only the indifference remains. All the implicit closeness that a good email or text exchange can convey is almost gone.
And maybe the very worst of all, I'm not alone. As my friend Sea recently wrote to me, "It's like, the majority of people decided to get all serious and stuff with email, while a small percentage of us kept on writing informal, offbeat, sometimes really personal emails."
So what gives?
It's easy to blame technology for the shift in my (and perhaps the collective "our") style. After all, it's evolved right alongside the devolution of my writing panache.
A Brief Timeline of How My Personal Correspondence Changed with Communication Technology
After email hit the scene big, we all began logging into a little thing called AIM where we could be chatting in real time with our friends. (This was pretty much before texting existed/affordable so yes, this was huge.) It was here that I got schooled in TMW or too much writing. "You don't have to write whole paragraphs," was my friend Michelle's criticism on IM one evening after I'd banged out what probably resembled a think piece in the tiny chat box. "Just write one sentence at a time, otherwise it's too hard to follow."
I quickly learned I was apt to doing communication technology "wrong." My AIM-oops was followed by similar issues in texting, sending too many messages or too long of messages to people with limited texting plans (there was a time, dear young'uns, when you used to know exactly which friend had what carrier and what text plan so you knew if it was okay to text them toward the end of the month). But it wasn't all about the money (if it ever is about the money, listen to this to get re-oriented as to what is right) - it was also about the culture.
As we started being able to communicate faster, we wanted to communicate more. Except, in order to do that, we had to communicate a little less, either in word count or in how much thought we give to our responses.
One of the most telling signs of this comes from my adventures in online dating. Remember how I mentioned those carefully crafted missives? After five-plus years of "letter style" being the way in online dating, it's no wonder when I was at first confused by the likes of Coffee Meets Bagel in 2014, a dating app that immediately opened a texting line between myself and a match. Suddenly I was thrown into the world of shorthand and rapid fire responses with a stranger. It was off-putting, as though we were suddenly supposed to be close friends with ease and familiarity, and I think the false pretense of knowing is what made me not really want to meet many men from the site.
By the time Tinder and Bumble rolled around though, I had been primed to accept the rules of engagement, and I short-messaged away, to the point of feeling off-out by men who wanted to send me more than a few sentences at a time. In fact, I started becoming brief with them - the very people I was trying to develop a relationship with (and I definitely stopped proofreading these messages; you should see the typo blunders I've sent to Bumblers and friends alike).
We used to communicate based on mutual availability; now we expect to communicate on our own terms alone.
Part of the reason this shortening happened can be summed up in an email exchange with Sea:
Me: I'm still trying to find a balance between doing it all, and not doing anything. And I've taken to writing short emails, and putting less thought and energy into them.
Sea: I know exactly what you're talking about. I still feel like a floozy of sorts with the way I write emails to say, you, because I loathe too much seriousness. But I see your point. That takes energy. And what with the majority of people being all like, one pragmatic line sent from their iPhones all the time, this format seems less and less appropriate somehow.
So Is it the Medium, Or is it Me?
Sea makes a really good point. Smaller screens seem to equal smaller amounts of text. I'd argue I write less on my phone because I am constantly frustrated by trying to type with tiny keys (my thumbs may be itty-bitty in the grand scheme of phalanges, but they are famous for pushing the wrong letters down) but I don't think that is the answer.
My phone inspires me less than my laptop, which if I'm being honest, inspires me less than a typewriter. Plunk me in front of an Underwood and I'll bang for days without stopping. And I have to wonder if it's because of how easy it is to delete words on a screen versus trying to erase pressed ink. As humans have adapted to this relatively new technology, it's possible we simply practice the art of not revealing more. The ability to quickly self-edit goes a long way in the "saying less" category.
But I'm not sure that's the answer either. The overplayed conversation of "being too busy" comes to mind. Is it possible all that content marketing training about keeping blogs to 500 words or less ("Can you cut this to 300?" wasn't an uncommon request) seeped into my personal life? Or perhaps I believe no one has the time to read what I have to say, even if they wanted to. There's simply too much interesting content out there, and we're becoming a culture of skimmers to try and take it all in (and a society of emoji-fiends to react to it all).
Honestly, I can't help but think that one driving factor for me is that writing in my own voice used to be second nature. After years of writing for other people though, my own style has been stifled and it now takes energy to sound like me because I have to bust through the filters of "This isn't how it's supposed to be" when of course, it is.
What's in An Email?
When we remove voice and personality from our correspondence, we remove ourselves. Sure, emojis are taking the place of descriptive language (pictures and thousands of words and all) and sometimes succeeding at the heavy legwork of conveying emotion, but I don't like thinking that my feelings can be reduced to an icon. For me, the only way to truly express myself has been, and still is, through words.
Which leads me to believe saying less is okay, depending on how we say it.
*This makes me sound as though I'm running big data on my inbox. I'm not. I'm merely observing, and spending waaaaaay too much time rifling through old messages as I research this piece.