Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Lost Art of Letters

I assigned a worksheet to my Global Conversation classes that included unscrambling two addresses and writing the correct order. After living in Busan for nearing eight months (not including the 9 weeks I was in SE Asia), I have written quite a few letters. On each of them, I’ve written my return address, to help the people on the other end to easier address the letter they will no doubt send in return. All that to say: addresses in Korea are in the same order as addresses in the States.

Elaine Schnabel                                               name
Kosin University, English Department           institution, if applicable
194 Wachi-ro, Dongsam-Dong                       street address, neighborhood
Yeongdo-gu, Busan 606-701                          minor area (city),major a. (state, district) zip code
Korea                                                              country           

You can imagine my delight when not one single student was able to correctly unscramble the addresses, nor successfully write their incorrectly unscrambled guesses on the right place on the page. In despair, I asked my classes, “Who has written a letter before?”

Not one student raised his or her hand.

Allowing for poor English listening skills I asked the question several different ways and still received nothing more than blank stares and shaking heads. These are college students around my age who, like me, did not grow up with smartphones pressed into their palms 90% of the day. Korea is about the size of Indiana and their postal service is incredible. I shipped a borrowed camera to Seoul for about $3 and it arrived less than 24 hours later. I’ve since been told that I was silly to even go to the post office and buy the box myself: you can order that service online and a postal worker will come to your door and package it all himself.

Call me a luddite, but this ignorance toward traditional methods of communication bums me out. Letter writing is one of the most perfect ways to sustain a long-distance relationship with anyone. It requires all of a half hour a week of focus[1]—an amount of time many of us unthinkingly give to facebook ten times over in a week, mostly used for acts of voyeurism.

It may take longer to write a letter than an email, but I can guarantee you that after writing it, you won’t feel busier like you do after finishing an email (only to have three more pop up in your inbox). You will feel fuller, calmer, and usually more accomplished.

The best part is the waiting. Waiting is a lost art these days; instant gratification is rampant and exhausting. Getting an email back the next day is lovely in the business world where things need to be done quickly. But in the friendship and correspondence world, it’s too quickly, too much. Nothing new can be said a matter of hours after you’ve already said everything. Give it a week and you’ve already forgotten to write back, lost the thread of the conversation. Correspondence through emailing is like riding a bike with rollerblades on your feet—overkill and awkwardness.

When you get a letter, the wait was worth it and the half-hour you spent writing the first one was worth it. The one trip every three months to the post office is negligible and so is the poor self-esteem contracted when you saw how bad your handwriting was. As my students would say to finish this extended paragraph: “Try writing a letter! It will be nice!”

They are precious to me, the letters you write. Thank you all.

[1] And that’s only if you vow to write one letter a week. Depending on where your correspondents are, you can probably write to three different people with that amount of dedication.


  1. I was told that the addresses here were different. They go from major area to minor area. Is that true?

    I love my letters too!!! I was suprised when I had to tell people who have lived here a year how to use the post office. (I swear I am there at least once a week..actually heading there after school today)

    1. Not as far as I can tell. The school's address isn't written like that, but maybe that's just because I've read it in English? I'll ask someone...