As more teenagers have passed through our lives, one thing has become crystal clear to me: Not only do they not write snail mail, but some of them have never heard of snail mail and some of them don’t even know their addresses! In inquiring about snail mail with a variety of teenagers over the last couple years, I’ve received answers ranging from “what is snail mail” and “I don’t know if I can get snail mail” to “how do I find out what my address is.”
The teenagers who come through our home—both foreign exchange students and their American friends—are smart kids, and yet there seems to be a huge void in what correspondence looks like if it isn’t communicated through a cell phone. When one of these teens told me she didn’t think her family had a snail mail address, I told her that they must. Holiday cards and bills sent to her family must be delivered somewhere. After I put it that way, this particular girl told me that yes, in fact, they do have a snail mail address.
How sad is it, though, that I have to make such a stretch to explain what snail mail is to someone? These are kids who have never, ever received a handwritten letter or postcard in their lives. Conversely, these are also often kids who have never, ever written a piece of snail mail or sent a postcard to someone while they were traveling. These things are deeply engrained in my life, and I realize that isn’t the case for most people, but I truly can’t imagine an existence where a person has never picked up a pen and written a note to someone, stuck a stamp on it and dropped it in a mailbox.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the interaction teenagers have with each other, a vast majority of which is centered in virtual spaces. There is a lot of research out there about what the lack of face-to-face communication is doing to this generation of kids, but I think they’re also missing out on something by not sending or receiving snail mail. Something is lost when a text message just quickly passes by in a stream of dozens of messages. Something is missing when real words are lost to fragmented Twitter updates and 10-second SnapChats.
Communication has truly morphed into something complicated and practically incomprehensible at times. I know we can’t ever go back to a time when phone calls and handwritten letters were the only departures from actual conversation, but I do mourn the loss of something as simple as paper and pen, eye contact and moving lips.