Neil McNicholas: Electronic words replacing the art of conversation and letter writing

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IT was English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton who coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” in his 1839 play about Cardinal Richelieu. Some 176 years later, we might wonder what he would have said about emails and where they fit into the scheme of things.

This week we heard the heart-warming story of two ladies – one English, one French – who have been penfriends for 44 years. They may not be unique, but it will very likely become a rare activity, a rare achievement, as the art of letter-writing declines.

I never had a specific pen-pal as such, but throughout the 16 years that I spent as an “expat” working and living in Africa, the Middle East, and the United States, my letter-writing to family and friends back home was somewhat prolific.

International phone calls were far too expensive back then and the internet wasn’t even thought of. Letter-writing was therefore the only way to keep in touch and I maintained a constant stock of aerograms and air mail paper and envelopes for that purpose. (Do they even sell aerograms any more?)

Keeping in touch with family and friends back home was always very important and receiving mail from home perhaps even more so. Post assumed a tremendous significance.

When I was teaching as a lay-missionary in Zambia, we always waited hopefully for the return of whoever had driven the seven miles into town to do the shopping and to collect the mail.

It was always a great disappointment if there wasn’t anything for you.

On one occasion I was obviously so desperate for a letter that, with our usual transport unavailable, I volunteered to ride a bicycle those seven miles (and seven back again) along dirt tracks in the African heat.

I was the only one for whom there was no post that day!

I also remember a colleague on another mission station suffering a breakdown at Christmas when he hadn’t received any post for a while – not even a Christmas card.

Influenced by the Americans I was working with for most of those years overseas, I got into the practice of writing regular newsletters as the most 
efficient way of sharing with everyone back home “the story so far”.

While I was careful that these never replaced more personal letters, unintentionally over time they provided a useful archive of life wherever I was at the time – as I discovered when I was eventually back home and found my mother had faithfully kept my newsletters.

When, back home, I finally put down roots again, for a while I kept in touch with my many friends where they were, now also back home, but little by little, and with the emergence of email. I realised that I wasn’t writing anywhere near as many letters as I once had.

I think the need to write quite as frequently declined anyway because life became much more ordinary and, presumably, of less interest to others – though those who frequent the Twittersphere seem convinced that their lives (even their personal lives) are of infinite interest to everyone.

Instead of sitting down to a mammoth session of bringing people up to date with goings on, it is easier these days to be in more regular, briefer, touch via email or the social media.

There is also less call for writing skills: things that were once important such as spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence construction.

People now spit and grunt at one another in digital shorthand. The thumb is now mightier than the pen, or both thumbs if you’re ambidextrous. (I’d give my right hand to be ambidextrous!)

But where has all this got us? We have at our disposal an unprecedented potential for communicating with one another, but that’s just about all we do.

The word means “to share or exchange information”, “to convey or transmit”. People are in communication with one another more universally (and ubiquitously) than ever before, but for the most part it is, as the definition says, a process of exchange and transmission. It is electronic and impersonal. The ease of texting (and we have made it so) means that no one needs to speak to one anyone anymore.

Not only have we lost of art of writing, we are also losing the art of conversation.

People may be in constant contact with one another, but are they truly communicating with others on a personal level? There is nothing very personal about printed text and especially when it’s foreshortened by digi-speak.

It is as if we can’t even be bothered to spend the time it takes to write proper words.

Who these days would be prepared to commit themselves to an exchange of letters for 44 years when sending a text doesn’t even take 44 seconds?

Father Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.