Sunday, October 16, 2011

Communication Styles

I got an email last night from Andrea, a high school friend with whom I recently reconnected on Facebook. "Could we communicate by email instead?" she was asking. "I rarely go on Facebook. It makes me uncomfortable. Even short emails would be better..."

I wrote back that I whole-heartedly agreed. While Facebook is quite amazing in terms of reconnecting us with people from our past, I question its utility day to day. I am delighted to be reconnected with high school friends -- many of whom were from outside the U.S. (our high school was primarily a boarding school and about one-third of my class were foreign students). In fact, our class has its own Facebook page in anticipation of our 50th reunion in 2013.

But I find that I rarely visit Facebook. I hate the games. I'm mortified that just because I click a "Like" button on a web page (such as the web page for the condo in Maui where Bob and I recently stayed), this information is instantly emblazoned on my Facebook page, flaunting my tastes to the (undoubtedly indifferent) world. I feel frustrated by the generic messages that close and dear friends leave there in lieu of more personal emails or letters or phone calls.

I'm truly repulsed by the latest Zuckerberg idea: the classification of Friends into "Close Friends" or "Acquaintances."

 I came upon this abomination when trying  to "Friend" a long-lost co-worker. I was asked to choose: which was she? Close Friend? Relative? Acquaintance? In frustration, I exited without making the Friend request. How could I even dare to think of classifying the people I know and love? Maybe I haven't seen my classmates Dora Emilia or Maria Teresa, who live in El Salvador, or Andrea, who lives in Washington state, for nearly 50 years, but there is a warmth when I read their greetings that would make me hesitate to relegate them to the ranks of Acquaintances. There is no one on my Facebook Friends list who doesn't conjure up happy memories and warm feelings, some more immediate than others, but all treasured nonetheless. They will never be classified.

But my communication peeves go beyond Facebook. I'm truly mystified by texting. I find it unwieldy. I find it scary -- especially when I see people texting when driving. I find it sad -- when I see a couple having dinner together and, instead of talking with each other, they're busy texting. Maybe they're writing private love notes. But more likely, they're texting others while they could be communicating with each other.

But commmunication styles and preferences have changed in recent years.

In a recent poll of young adults, the vast majority said that they preferred to communicate with their friends via texting rather than by talking on the phone. I can see that texting would be much more convenient than talking audibly in class. But not to hear a dear friend's voice? Maybe I'm hopelessly out of step. A former patient of mine, who now lives in Texas, vows to bring me kicking and screaming into the 21st century by texting me occasionally to say "hello."  While I answer his texts with a minimum of grumbling since I really do like hearing from him, I do sigh with exasperation when I hear that "ping" on my cell phone.

In a story on NBC Nightly News recently, it was reported that the average American only gets a hand-addressed piece of personal mail once every seven weeks. Except for birthday and Christmas cards, I think I only received a hand-written piece of mail -- a note from my dear friend Mary Breiner -- once this year.

For all the satisfying immediacy of email, I miss the permanence of hand-written (or even typed) letters. I have a box of letters sent from people I love -- both living and long-dead.

From time to time, I go into the box and re-read some of them, feeling the love and connection all over again.

I hold letters from my mother when I was in college -- and remember how excited I was to get them and how she was able to express some feelings in writing that eluded her when we were together.

With my finger, I trace over the writing of a thank-you note from Aunt Molly, feeling comforted to hold something connected with her.

 I re-discover, with delight, a letter from my beloved Sister Ramona, written on my high school graduation day, telling me everything she valued in me as a person and her support for my dreams for the future.

I treasure a letter from Elizabeth Swayne, my most demanding and most beloved college professor who became a close friend after I graduated. One letter, written during a time when I was experiencing a bout of depression and career doldrums, came from the soft heart of a woman who had expected and demanded so much of me. "Oh, I wish we could be together in person," she wrote. "I would love to hug you and reassure you and tell you just how special you are." And I hold it in my hands and bless the day I met her.

I find the first Valentine I ever received from a boy -- from my dearest college classmate Tim Schellhardt -- and all these years later, it still makes me smile and feel overwhelmed with gratitude at the gift of his loving friendship.

I find a wonderful letter from Barbe Schellhardt, Tim's wife of many years, who gave me the gift of some invaluable advice on the eve of my marriage to Bob and I quietly thank her once again.

I come across some letters from my friend Marie Traina, murdered when we were only 28, and am comforted by their ordinariness -- the gossip, the joking, the warmth so typical of our relationship -- and I enjoy a mini-visit with her again.

There are cards and letters from Bob, following the course of our 36-year-old relationship through the early days, courtship, marriage and the real work and pleasure of being soul mates -- and I feel incredible gratitude in our mutual love and commitment through the years.

And I come across a more recent addition to my memory box -- a printed out email from my brother, reassuring me after I had written to him expressing feelings of failure and frustration. He told me, in part, that I was truly gifted, though not always lucky, that he admired my talents and wished he were so blessed, and that he was truly proud to have me as a sister. My eyes filled with tears as I held the note from my brilliant, successful brother, knowing that his words were truly from the heart.

I keep these missives to read from time to time to replenish my spirit and reconnect with those I've lost and those still living whose love and friendship I treasure to this day.

What text could have such staying power?

Wait! The ping! Oh, no! Not a text!'s a text from Mary Breiner. What??? She's texting??? No way. Mary is an even greater techno-phobe than I am! Wait...

She says a friend has driven her and her husband John from L.A. to Washington state to their daughter Katie's for a visit and now they're headed back home. She was thinking of me and would love to talk soon!

Wow. This is cool. I guess it's a pleasure to hear from anyone dear -- however they choose to communicate!


  1. I'm on Facebook; I like Facebook. But I don't get what the big DEAL is about Facebook. It's a way to keep in touch with people; but as you point out it's not the only way; plus, some people post WAY too often. Ya know, I wanna keep in touch, but I don't need to know your every move, or your every opinion.

    Anyway, love the ending to your post.

  2. This made me chuckle. Believe it or not, I don't even own a cell phone, and I have never texted. I do have a Facebook page, however, and several e-mail accounts. But I also have a drawer full of letters, and when I read them, the people who wrote them are in the room with me. I especially cherish the letter from my father, because he rarely wrote letters and always left that up to my mother. But it was a lovely sweet letter in his handwriting, and I love holding it in my hands. Texts just don't give that same feeling, do they?

  3. I have only one friend that I text with...usually to set up times to go shopping. I've found Facebook a great way to keep up with my grandchildren. My daughter posts the funny things that they say and do. I keep in touch with their everyday activities. I've got boxes of old letters too. As a writer i find it easier to express my thoughts in written form, but it is rare that I send a personal letter anymore.

  4. I recently deactivated my FaceBook account. Right after they changed the premise and revealed ALL my info to the public. You have to go into your profile and reselect your privacy settings. Until you do, everything is out there.

    Nope. Don't need it. I did reconnect with some high school buddies but I got along with them now the same way I got along with them back in HS. Nope. Don't need that either.

    It takes one week for my handwritten letters to reach my relatives in Italy. Or ten seconds with email or instant messaging. Prefer the latter. I SKYPE with my kids. Love it. And I text them all the time. It's great sending a little 'love you' to them at any hour of the day.

    One day I hope to get the iPhone that comes complete with SKYPE. How amazing to see and talk to my kids instantly. Love technology and I welcome it.

    I never use a cell phone for anything when I am driving. Everyone knows NOT to contact me while I'm taking a road trip. Leave me a voice mail and I'll call you later.

  5. I hate texting myself because I feel the need to write complete words in complete sentences, thus it takes me way too long to compose a text. As convenient as our technological forms of communication are, it has depersonalized so much of our lives, and that is sad.

  6. Honey how strange you writing this post and me reading it today because just his morning I had the same thoughts running through my mind about texting and emails. I miss my kids calling me as much as they use to. Now its more emails.
    What I was really thinking about was how I need to write my grand children more. I am doing that tonight before I turn it.
    Thanks for writing this post and putting it words I could not

  7. Dear Dr. Kathy

    My first and most immediate thought is that you are a truly fortunate person, not because you have so many wonderful messages in your special box of letters, but that you have kept them for all these years. That you are the sort of person, warm-hearted, loyal, interested in people, be they friends or family or just acquaintances, who thrives on people and their appreciation of you, who has made and kept friends for many years and, even more amazing to me, who remembers their names. (Although that is probably due to the messages being from named people)

    My letters and cards and messages from the past have all disappeared long ago, even piles of letters from my mother. I look at photographs of school friends and cannot remember their names. I can no longer remember the names of people who lived in the same village or even next door to me in towns; there is nothing wrong with my memory but there is something wrong with my 'friendship muscle'.

    I am not proud of this, but I have come to accept that this is so. I'd love to be the person who needs people, collects them and cherishes them, I simply don't. I am perfectly happy to be on friendly terms with you, but once I move on, that's it.

    But if I put my mind to it, I can be the life and soul of any party, until the moment I shut the door behind me.

    My way of being is solitary, sometimes lonely, but that is how I started out and I've been able to change.

    As I said, you are truly fortunate; even if you need to accept FB, texting and emails.

  8. What an interesting post. It's true - our methods of communicating have really change, and continue changing every day. I have to confess I still write handwritten letters, but only to my parents. Also, I don't use Facebook. First of all, I have no need for it. Second of all, this company does not inspire trust.

  9. Within hours of my son's death, his friends and relatives were informed, could leave messages on Facebook, could contribute to his Memorial Garden. Without Facebook connectivity, I would never have been able to find all his friends, connect with his many contacts.
    Yes, every mode of communication has its good and bad points. Writing takes too long; email is too short; phone contact takes lots of trials and voice messaging. Whatever works, I say.
    Now with blogging, and connecting the blog to Facebook, I've been astounded at how many friends have just now found out about my retirement years!

  10. Rosaria, you're so right about the usefulness of Facebook connectivity in instances like Brian's death. I'm so glad it was so helpful. And you're right about each mode of communication having an up and down side!

    Olga, thanks so much for your comments and Jann, thanks for pointing out that Facebook is a great way to keep up with grandkids.

  11. Hi Kathy, I'm with you on Facebook-- to the point that I went to the trouble of going through a long process to actually delete my page entirely (it's different from deactivating my page). It was a pain but I felt so much better afterwards and no longer worry what Zuckerberg is doing with my information or feeling bad because I didn't "friend" someone.

    I fought long and hard against texting and held off quite a while in getting an iPhone with email access too. But.... I have to admit, I'm glad to have texting and email available on my phone! I got it so I could be part of my niece's pregnancy because she sent lots of photos via text. And now I get a "photo of the day" of the baby. It's fantastic.

    I did very little actual texting myself until a few months ago when my parents were both in the hospital-- then it came in VERY handy in keeping the entire family up to date. The biggest surprise from that experience is my MOTHER has now started texting her own health updates! And I never thought I'd see the day that happened.

    Cheers, jj

  12. Had to chuckle, because as I was reading this and nodding furiously in agreement, I had to stop because my cell phone pinged with the announcement of yet another text. Ah, how the world is changing.

  13. I don't care for Facebook or Twitter. I prefer blogging and email. :-)

    God bless and have a wonderful weekend :-)

    *The Old Geezer Blog

  14. I don't have a Facebook account as my husband is very unhappy about FB's security and privacy issues. I also don't own a smartphone and just have a Pay-As-You-Go mobile for emergency use, which I don't keep switched on, so texting is out too. I use a landline phone, email a lot, love blogging and have even been known to put pen to paper occasionally, though not often, given my dreadful handwriting. I do manage to communicate to all those I love in one way or another, which is what matters most.

    PS After seeing my daughter-in-law's new toy, I will admit to having severe iPad envy, so perhaps Santa will be kind to me this year...

  15. Well, you couldn't echo my own thoughts more completely. I do FB -- I have to as a key part of my job, and when I'm there I find my friends, post something or share a link. I blocked all the games. I hate the games and farms and whatever they are. I prefer direct contact. Blogs are OK, but they seem more personal. EMail is fine. But boy, do I treasure cards and letters. I save them. And I think about the historical legacy, too. Not mine. I'm not special to anyone except my future descendants. But suppose the letters written by our leaders to their parents, friends, lovers, wives or husbands, long before they knew they'd be in the history books, didn't exist. Someone read, replied, hit delete, didn't even print. What a rich heritage of human emotion, passion, analysis and history would be lost. No, I'll email because it works. But I find I print out the special ones. And save them.

  16. Very interesting. I have found old friends from 37 years ago via FAcebook so I can hardly dis it, but I have deleted all but 8 friends. I think it is a good vehicle of connection for us wise oldies but I question its value for my young son, who now boasts 400 odd 'FRiends'. I finds it irritating to have 'friends'" news on my page when I hardly know them.

  17. I was a military brat and moved around a lot. Then, when I was 37, I moved after a divorce and lost my address book. I lost touch with a lot of friends. I found them again on Facebook. It's also a good way for me to keep up with the activities of kids and nieces and nephews. And grandkid sayings and photos.

    I played a Facebook game briefly with some people I don't know personally. I listed them as Acquaintances. When I stopped playing the game, I unfriended them. Otherwise, everyone is a friend, and I know them all personally, and I'm glad to see what they're up to.

    I text to my two grown sons because they're more likely to respond than if I leave a voicemail.

    Otherwise, I'm more of an emailer and an occasional phone chatter, or a go-to-coffeer.