What makes written communication personal?

It is sheer joy to receive a well written personal email. I received one this week and thought about what goes into creating written communication that moves us. Among various reasons, the most important aspect of meaningful written communication is the effort involved in crafting it.

This effort could be physical. A hand written letter has to be drafted in rough and rewriting neatly and legibly. It has to be sealed in an envelope, addressed, stamped and posted. The explicit need for this physical effort has been all but eliminated in our digital world. Nevertheless, it feels great to receive a postcard or a handwritten letter because somebody took the pains to send it.

But there is another type of effort – one that is emotional. Translating our emotions, feelings and individuality into words involves effort. So does refining a draft, structuring it and editing it until the words convey what we feel. Seth Godin calls this emotional labour. Emotional effort translated into the written word moves us for the same reason – because somebody cared enough to do it.

The forms of written communication we use today can be categorized based on the amount of physical or emotional labour that goes into crafting them.

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The Letter quadrant (High physical, high emotional): The most potent form communication in its ability to move us. Hand written letters go here. They have become so unusual that they would be perceived as awkward. This awkwardness partly arises from the thought of making a connection that is so personal.

The Email quadrant (Low physical, high emotional): Electronic communication aims to minimize all of the physical effort that goes into creating written communication. But a well worded email does this while preserving the high amount of emotional effort that goes into creating it. By encouraging us to edit and rephrase, it even contributes to it.

The Postcard quadrant (High physical, low emotional): There is still the effort involved in purchasing and posting a postcard, but the message is usually a fleeting “hello”, or “this reminded me of you”.

The IM quadrant (Low physical, low emotional): The most prevalent form of communication today. We can do it from the comfort of our couch or say something on the go in 10 seconds. IM, and Whatsapp sit squarely here. It helps us keep in touch, but rarely moves us.

The high effort quadrants are worth taking note of. The Email quadrant prioritizes emotional effort, by eliminating physical effort. I am yet to send a single personal handwritten letter, but I am looking forward to it. All the while, I hope to minimize my interaction on the IM quadrant to free up capacity for the other three.

Written communication has evolved a lot since the time homing pigeons. As we forge ahead, however, it is important to not leave the meaningful behind.

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