Originally published in The Startup.
The internet is awash with little tidbits and hacks that promise to change your life.
Who knows if any of them actually will. Who am I to say. But this is something that has a lot of value for me. And it’s often the small practices, the marginal efforts, that make a big difference in our lives.
Every Sunday, I try to write ten postcards. Then, at some point over the next week, I buy stamps and mail them.
That’s it. It’s not always ten, sometimes it’s more or less, some weeks I don’t get a chance to send any. But the point remains: I try to send a lot of postcards.
What do I mean by ‘postcards’?
Those little cardboard squares with pictures on the front and writing on the back, most often sent from holiday destinations as a means of asserting that you were a cool, well-traveled person, back in the age before Instagram and geo-tagging.
Who do I send them to?
Mostly to subscribers of this site. Anyone on the email list can send me an address and I’ll send them a hand-written card. There’s no hidden marketing agenda. I delete addresses as soon as they’re written on the card — I don’t store them or use them for any other purpose, it’s not to promote or sell anything. Most people aren’t comfortable giving a stranger their address, but some are.
Otherwise, I send them to: friends, old friends, people I work with, people I used to work with, people I’d like to work with, family, people I’d like to express gratitude towards. It’s honestly not that hard to think of ten people a week. A doctor who helped you or a family member with a persistent problem. A teacher who supported you a lot before graduation. The staff at a coffee shop where you used to spend too much time.
I don’t force it. And I haven’t written about this practice before because I feared it would cheapen it in the eyes of those who I send them to.
The more important question is, why?
Why do I do this and why should you?
On the purely selfish side, it’s fun. I enjoy choosing postcards or making my own once in a while, taking the time to write them (one of the rare occasions I ever write by hand these days), taking a trip to the post office and feeling the satisfaction of depositing a stack of them in a nearby postbox.
Beyond that, it’s a means of connection.
Most of our communication with the people in our lives — family, friends, partners, co-workers, casual acquaintances — happens in a digital format. The people we care about become little avatars on a screen. They become notifications, dings, pop-ups. Some people I know have cartoon characters or animals as their profile pictures, and I find myself picturing them like that in my head as we speak. Their digital selves detach from their physical selves.
They become noise. And as much as they mean to us, we can forget those simulacra are not all they are.
It’s so much easier to be abrupt, passive-aggressive, rude, or outright insulting when we communicate in a digital format — even if we aren’t even intending to do so. The nuances get lost.
A postcard doesn’t solve any of those problems.
It’s not a shortcut to connection. There’s no such thing. You can’t hack human engagement. It’s a fairly terrible means of communication. You can’t write much on one. Sending them is slow and sometimes they take weeks to arrive or get lost. The recipient can’t ping a reply back in seconds and let you know what they think.
But that’s precisely the point.
Communication has become synonymous with speed, instant gratification, always on access, immediate replies, brief and shallow thoughts.
The slowness of a conversation in person, of sending letters and postcards, even of a long phone call is something entirely different. It is connection for the sake of connection, because the connection is the reward in itself and is what we seek, rather than connection with the aim of achieving a particular goal or alleviating a moment of boredom, or chasing our own selfish ends.
It is a slow form of communication done with the exclusive aim of delighting someone. The words are barely even the point. You can’t fit a lot on a postcard. It’s the act in itself that is the point.
We’re seeing a revival of out-dated, clunky, inefficient technology — cassette tapes, vinyl records, film photography, wristwatches, fixed-gear bicycles, brick phones, hand crafting, typewriters, fountain pens, candles, the analog and the redundant.
It’s easy to label this as frivolous, hipster posing, a modern iteration of the leisure class. But I think it also speaks of a desire to step away from a world where things are valued solely for their speed, efficiency, and economic utility. To protest a world moving ever faster by mining a past we never experienced for nostalgic relics.
To send a postcard when you could send an email is a form of protest. It is a refusal to let all our communication be nothing more than data, pixels on a screen.
An email is easy to delete. A text or message is easy to ignore. Most of us receive dozens of them every day.
It only takes a few seconds to send a text or email and it’s something you can do anywhere, any time. To send a postcard you need to go out and buy one, hand write it, find their address, buy a stamp, then walk to a postbox and deposit it. It’s a gesture of gratitude, an expression of the desire for connection.
That’s why I started doing it in the first place.
When I began blogging, aged 13, it was mostly out of a desire for a creative outlet away from the humdrum world of school and the quiet chaos of my bedroom.
But, before long, I found myself falling into long email conversations with other bloggers and people I encountered online. I could relate to them in ways I couldn’t always relate to the people immediately around me.
With time, emails evolved into letters and postcards which were less practical (and consumed all the money I had, being too young to get a job) but which let us be more honest. Letters were a confessional medium.
We shared intimate slices of our worlds without discernment, pouring the debris of our days on paper, sending screaming missives off into the night.
We, or at least I, were seeking something we couldn’t find online.
While I no longer have the poetic panache, time or inclination to pen a dozen multiple-page diatribes each week, the postcards linger.
Part nostalgia, part habit, part simple enjoyment of the process. And I think it’s a valuable practice to adopt because:
a) it’s a mean of expressing gratitude and we’ve all heard the million arguments about why that’s a good thing
b) it’s very simple, easy, and relatively inexpensive (the number is arbitrary) to do
c) I find it helps strengthen relationships (I’m very introverted and not good with communicating, so I’m always looking for non-verbal ways to express things)
d) it’s a memorable and underrated.