Thursday, January 20, 2011

Endangered American Species: Language and Conversation

Dear readers,

I am writing this in a letter form. Remember those? I longingly do. And not e-mails - actual arrive in the mail, hand-written letters. Our second United States President, John Adams, and his wife Abigail exchanged 1,200, in what The New York Times remarked was "one of the most documented marriages in early American history" in its article on Joseph Ellis' "First Family, Abigail and John Adams." A more contemporary (although also no longer with the living) Julia Child has her letters featured in As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, which is on my long "to read" list. Will it rekindle a love affair with letters? I wish, but doubtful.

I am writing to you mildly alarmed by this New York Times article (which notably published the same day as the John Adams article). It started out this way,

"Signs you're an old fogey: You still watch movies on a VCR, listen to vinyl records and shoot photos on film. And you enjoy using e-mail."

The topic: how companies like Facebook, in an attempt to reach an increasingly impatient younger generation are "responding with message services that are focused on immediate gratification."

The problem I see with immediate gratification - one is going to be endlessly dissatisfied, always looking for the next big thing. Isn't that the driver of our American consumer culture and what marketers want? There's always a better TV, better eReader, better car, better "thing" that will complete your life. The invisible forces want you constantly bored. No profits in using what we have.

Beyond the consumerism (imagine the true price of all these gadgets and services over a lifetime, not in a monthly view), the cost to our language and communication skills is immeasurable.

"We're going down a road where we're losing our skills to communicate with the written word," bemoaned Judith Kallos, an e-mail etiquette blogger and author in the article. Added, rightly so, Californian Mary Bird, 65, "I don't want to be one of those elders who castigate young people's form of communication. But the art of language, the beauty of language, is being lost."

CBS Nightly News ran this story about the American ignorance of other languages (even our current Commander in Chief admitted he doesn't speak another language and was embarrassed to say so). They noted the small but slightly growing study of Chinese among American schoolchildren (50,000 American children are studying Chinese, 200 million Chinese school children are studying English). Aside from our nation's abysmal attention to the arts and culture in our education system, I couldn't help wonder how can we embrace another language, when we're rapidly losing sight of the importance of our own?

Channeling John Adams and Julia Child. We need a piece of you in the 21st century.

E-mail, for today's youth, was described by James E. Katz, the director for the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University, as "painful...It doesn't suit their social intensity."

The technology-induced ADD epidemic that seems to be sweeping many of both the youth and adults of our nation is one I refuse to be caught up in. The next time you go out to eat at a restaurant, look around and note the people compulsively typing away on their gadgets. After a recent date night at the movies with my sweetheart, some people were busy checking e-mail as soon as the credits were rolling. My biggest interest at that moment was finding out if True Grit was filmed domestically or abroad (it was filmed in Texas and New Mexico, which I would have missed had I been texting or a looking at e-mail). My social skills, it seems, are not so "intense."

The great trap of all this constant connectivity is that work and personal time boundaries are erased and many seem to be unable to live in the moment. No Smart Phone for me, thank you. The more intimate connections (a conversation, a phone call, a long overdue cup of coffee with a friend) are lost. I don't need to know the "status" of what everyone is doing at every second of the day (ahem, Facebook, which you won't find me on).

I do want to have personal encounters with people and their ideas. Face to face engaging conversations, thoughtful articles and blog posts, the arts (literature, film, music, visual, dramatic) - things that stimulate my mind instead of dulling it, that's what interests me. And filling my daily world by celebrating the word - its beauty, power and magnificence. I hereby add "Word" to my list of favorite four-letter words.

Sincerely Yours,
Catherine (a proud Old Fogey as facetiously defined by The New York Times)


  1. I also love writing letters, whether through email or snail mail (though I prefer the latter). There's just something wonderful about penning a long letter to someone and sending it out into the world. I love writing letters; one of my favorite ways to pass an afternoon is to sit at the kitchen table (which I find quite comfy) with a pen and my tablet and the person's last letter spread out across the table. A cup of herbal tea is usually involved. I also love finding letters in the mailbox. It always seems like such a surprise, even if I knew they were on their way.

    Sigh. I wish more people wrote letters.

  2. That sounds so lovely. I'll take one thoughtful letter (even in e-mail form if needed, but hand-written is I agree more favored) over two dozen text messages any day. Perhaps we can do our small part in resurrecting this lost art.

  3. I love this post. Love it! I am terrified that in 30 years I will pick up a novel (probably in some electronic form, as paper books will be obsolete) and it will be written in the following style: She was like OMG, what r u tlking about? FML!

    I know that each generation tends to bitch about the next, but I genuinely worry about kids these days. What is being lost in this sea of blinking screens? How will we ever get it back? What will they do to fill the void when (if?) they finally realize that glowing rectangles and mindless consumption are not easing the uncomfortable ache, and they have no genuine skills for building relationships?

  4. Thank you!

    A friend of mine refers to text talk as "robot speak." No flow, beauty or thought to it.

    There was also a New York Times article on a growing movement to encourage "play" among children, a crucial social and developmental part of childhood being lost amid all this technology. Can you imagine regular play is not even a childhood right of passage? Even adults need some form of play. What is becoming of us?

    I worry too, as you do, "How will we ever get it back?"

  5. Dear Catherine,
    Thanks for this thoughtful reminder. As a silver lining, all the instant contacts I make help me understand our world as a global community. But truthfully the most beautiful language I find each day is usually embedded in, no surprise to you, a book.

  6. Hi Jennifer. Thanks so much for your comment, and lovely in letter form. I'll take any letter I can get. :-)

    I too find inspiration in the words of books. Much like the people we encounter, the places one visits, or the food that one nourishes the body and soul with, I find the books I've read form so much of who I am and the words live with me daily of so much of what I've read.

    Kindest Regards,

  7. Hi Catherine,

    Thanks so much for this post. I agree that the art of writing letters, and I'm talking about handwritten letters, isn't appreciated anymore. I wonder whether people still send out handwritten thank you cards. I recently mailed one to a friend.

    I remember my college days when I'd anticipate the coming mail. Nowadays, I dread opening my mailbox. Most of the time, it's junk mail!

    I'm glad to hear that other people share similar thoughts about this.

    Thank you,

  8. Hi Kristin. I fondly remember exchanging handwritten letters with friends too when in school, and have quite a few saved. I wonder also about those handwritten thank you cards. It seems even on Christmas cards, people can't muster more than "Merry Christmas, Love so-and-so."

    For a related story that might interest everyone was this CBS Sunday Morning piece on the lost art of penmanship.


  9. You might also want to thank the keyboard for the deterioration of handwriting among the younger generation. Born in the 1950s, I had to be graded in school on handwriting. Chicken scratch? You failed the subject. This is somehow related to the degeneration of writing skills, @ for "at" and all other cryptic symbols that are meant to speed up the communication rate. I am surprised that Strunk and White is still on the shelves along with other treatises on style and grammar.

  10. The CBS News piece indicated we peak with our penmanship at the fourth grade. Looking at the current state of my own, I believe it.

    I'm sure we will all be too "busy" to type before long and find away around that.