The lost art of letter writing.
Expat, Language

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

If we’re not careful The Lost Art of Letter Writing will soon be a reality.

Today I received a handwritten card from a friend who is far away.  She’s from New Zealand, I’m from the UK.  I currently live in South Africa and she recently moved from here to Asia. It made my day.

The card didn’t arrive in my post box.  We don’t have a post box.  It came in true expat style via a mutual friends’ suitcase with a smattering of goodies to boot.

The wording on the front of the card is a Danish proverb which is completely apt for expat life, “The road to a friend’s house is never long.”  Although, I’d probably alter it to “The road to a friend’s house is never long, even if they are thousands of miles away and living in a completely different time zone.”

A Lost Art?

Nowadays it’s so rare that we receive handwritten correspondence and it makes me sad to think that letter writing becoming a lost art on the verge of extinction in this digital age of instantaneous and often vacuous communication.

We are assaulted by messages on all sides at any given moment of the day or night, usually with a ring or an electronic ping.  But once upon a time, pen and ink were the best way to keep in touch and correspondence was a more considered affair.

Rather than the homogenous pings of emails, Whatsapps and SMSes, letters arrive with a rattle of the letter box and perhaps the barking of your dog.  They thump onto your door mat, marked by wrinkles and crinkles, exotic stamps, postmarks and handwriting, individualised with coloured envelopes, metallic pens, decorative writing paper, perhaps even scented.

Handwriting swoops and slopes, loops and curls, penmanship instantly revealing the writers identity and mood.  Doodles and drawings, crossings out, pens running out mid sentence p.t.o., r.s.v.p., or s.w.a.l.k may be accompanied by photos, magazine cuttings and other small oddments, like ticket stubs, stickers and tea bags – small, but tangible treasures.

Postcards are a more a more public and ‘dangerous’ form of communication.  Perhaps a  small holiday boast or sometimes a cheeky message for all to see: ‘Hello Postman, if you are reading this, please stop, it’s private’ or ‘I hope your mum and dad aren’t reading this because……’

We have become impatient

Putting pen to paper necessitates thought, effort and careful consideration, tricky when we are all always in such a rush.  Correct spelling could actually involve walking to a shelf, finding and hefting a dictionary and leafing through it to check, or you could just use your own unique spelling, I’m sure that’s what people did before dictionaries.

Once a letter is signed, sealed and stamped, one must post it in a post box and then wait.  Wait for the letter to be received.  Wait for it to be digested and in due course replied to, or – oh sweet agony – not replied to.  Without the two blue ticks on a Whatsapp message or the read receipt option of email, you may never know whether your letter has been pointedly ignored, or lost indefinitely in a sorting office.

Pale blue tissue-thin aerogrammes don’t allow for any enclosures such as photos or little treats, just words, but there was (I say was, it’s years since I sent or received one) still something exciting about receiving such a flimsy vessel from thousands of miles away filled with so much news, with so many afterthoughts scribbled in the margins, writing getting smaller and more urgent as the paper ran out.

There were the catchy witticisms scribbled on envelopes:  

‘Deliver da letter da sooner, da better, de later de letter, de madder I getta.’

Or, wrapped around the edges of the back of the envelope:

‘Bet you a penny, bet you a pound, that you just turned this letter round.’

Valentines cards would arrive with disguised handwriting and a red herring post mark.  You had the intrigue of decoding the whole thing to work out who had sent it and whether it was a real admirer or a friendly prank.

You would receive letters that had been dropped in puddles smudging the writing, ones that had been tampered with, like the letter which had clearly been ripped open, taped back together and had “Ha ha, customs opened this, I think they were looking for drugs” scrawled on it by the friend of a friend of a friend who brought it back to the UK in their hand-luggage to post to me.

When did you last write a letter, a thank you card, a postcard?

Broken System

Here in South Africa, we don’t even have a post box at our house which makes receiving letters even more of a delightful novelty.  The odd item chancing the postal system may arrive months later or never at all and if it does get here, we may or may not find it tossed behind a plant pot, half eaten by ants.

The Catch All Christmas Facebook Post

Even back home, where our national postal service, the Royal Mail has functioned remarkably well for as long as I can remember, it has got to the point where instead of an actual Christmas card you tend receive a round robin email or, far worse, the ‘Catch-All-Facebook-Christmas-Post’.

The ‘Catch-All-Facebook-Christmas-Post’, by the way, is just rubbish, making zero effort to distinguish between family and lifelong friends or casual acquaintances and long lost school friends’ saying something worthy like ‘I/we  have decided not to send Christmas cards this year and will instead donate a sum to (insert name of worthy cause).’

Why not rather say that in addition to being a worthy and charitable soul (that is, if you in actual fact make a donation), you are also in fact too lazy to bother actually investing more than three seconds typing that one sentence to wish your entire global acquaintanceship a Merry Christmas.  Bah humbug to you too my friend.

When’s my birthday?

Birthday cards seem to be going the same way as Christmas ones.  Instead of actually having to make the remotest effort to remember the birthdays of your nearest and dearest, your Google calendar or Facebook will put up a nice reminder and the birthday girl or guy will get likes and comments from everyone they have ever met and even people they have never met. Try turning off this notification and see how many people actually remember.  It’s an interesting experiment.

The waning and soon to be lost art of letter writing, a good thing or a sad thing?

Pick up a Pen

If you’re feeling even the tiniest bit nostalgic, why don’t you pick up a pen, dig out a card and a stamp and drop someone an actual physical item of mail.  Perhaps to somebody older who doesn’t use social media.  Or to someone far away (like me!- I know, I know, I told you we don’t have a letter box, you can send it care of my folks and I’ll pick it up next time I’m back in the UK, it would be a lovely surprise) who you think of often, but never get round to getting in touch with.  It might just make their day….and at a later date your day, should they return the favour and reply.  

I’m going to do just that.  Card and pen are poised.  I haven’t decided who I’m going to write to or what I’m going to write, but someone, somewhere in this wide world of ours will receive some actual mail from me SOON – it could be YOU (but only if I have your address, so if I don’t have it, you need to message me).  Wanna be my pen pal?  S.W.A.L.K., P.T.O., over and out.

8 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Letter Writing”

  1. Hey fellow expat (: I loved this post. I think I enjoyed getting mail even while I was living back in my home state of PA, but now that I am abroad, I love it even more. It doesn’t even have to be a package! I wrote down what you said near the top ” Putting pen to paper necessitates thought, effort and careful consideration, tricky when we are ALWAYS in such a RUSH! Ah this is so true!


    1. Hi – Glad you enjoyed it! I’m still hoping friends and family took the hint and wrote to me, but I won’t hold my breath, I would likely turn blue and keel over before the postal system here delivered anything. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well if you need a pen pal, let me know! I can send you some postcards from Oslo! Haha my best friend is actually from Cape Town, South Africa! Looking forward to visit with her when she travels back!


      2. Ha, brilliant. Cape Town is stunning, you must visit your friend. I’ve written about some of the highlights on my blog, but we have another trip soon and hope to see even more of the city and surrounds.


  2. Great post. My wife writes a letter every month to all 9 of our nieces and nephews. The little ones get a small letter and stickers. The older ones get a longer letter, with a nice reminder to write back, or at least send us a text now and then.


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