By Gwyn Herbein
The Importance of Letters
In today’s technological, instant-gratification world of communication, it seems as if people are always in touch with one another, through email, texts and Facebook messages. Though it was once the sole means of communication, many people now find the idea of sitting down and writing a letter inconvenient and time-consuming. Over time, this shift has altered not only our day-to-day interactions with one another, but also some of our country’s infrastructure. In October, CNN Money reported that the United States Postal Service (USPS) had reached the $15 billion debt limit as capped by Congress and is barred from borrowing more.
Proposed solutions like eliminating Saturday delivery and closing postal facilities across the country could potentially deepen current economic problems, as communities grapple with the abandoned buildings and job losses.
Choosing technology over handwritten letters represents not only a cultural shift, but it also takes us further away from our past. Much of what we know about history—from the Bible to the battles of the Civil War—comes from letters. Often passed down from generation to generation for safekeeping, letters reveal more than just the goings-on of individuals long deceased. They give insights into social norms and major historical events that otherwise may have been lost.
While returning to a time when all communication was carried out through handwritten letters is highly unlikely, studies have shown that writing things by hand improves brain function, especially in children. For chiropractors, it can also represent a way to better connect with patients and distinguish your practice from others.
Letters have long been a valuable way for people to connect with one another and share important news. Ancient civilizations depended on oral traditions to pass down stories, songs and important records. Historians often credit Persian Queen Atossa with writing the first letter around 500 BC. The development of papyrus, vellum and lead pencils made keeping written records much easier, and radically influenced the way future generations saw the world. For example, much of the text included in the Bible comes from letters written by Paul and other first-century Christians to churches around the Middle East. Closer to home, Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first U.S. Postmaster General in 1775, and the country began issuing postage stamps in 1847.
In the United States, letters often fill in gaps in records. In a January 2009 issue of Newsweek, Malcolm Jones wrote an article discussing the decline in letter writing and its potential impact on our society. “Land transactions, birth and death records, weather reports, government documents—to the historian, nothing written is trivial, because it all contributes to the picture we have of the past,” he says, “… the letters people left behind are invaluable evidence of how life was once lived.” Museums and institutions of higher learning, like the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University in Atlanta, spend countless hours cataloguing and studying letters and other documents from writers and historical figures. Without written records, we run the risk of losing the records of our history for the posterity of future generations.
In addition to gaining important information about the past, letters are also a great way to connect with colleagues in your profession, or peers who share similar interests and hobbies. Previous generations of chiropractors have understood the importance of letter writing as a way to share thoughts on their profession, as well as to learn from one another. One of the most well known stories in the annals of Chiropractic is that of the pen pal relationship between Fred Barge, D.C., and Joseph Keating, Ph.D. Barge graduated from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1954 and set up a practice with his father in Wisconsin. He was a prolific writer, and also served as president of the International Chiropractors’ Association. Keating was trained in clinical psychology and clinical research methods and he served on the board of directors of the National Institute of Chiropractic Research. At the urging of a mutual friend, Barge and Keating began a pen pal relationship in the early 1980s. According to remarks Keating made during a presentation in 1997, their letters focused on issues related to chiropractic philosophy, innate intelligence and subluxation.
The letters continued back and forth for nearly five years before the men met face-to-face. By that time, they had established a mutual understanding that their views and philosophies differed, but they continued writing and learning from one another. “I believe we have each come to recognize that our disagreements are based not on ignorance of one another’s views, but rather upon fundamentally different a priori assumptions about life, about science and about epistemology,” Keating said in his 1997 speech. “Along the way the bond between us has been nurtured by our mutual fascination with and affection for chiropractic history.” The men agreed to disagree, in the spirit of academic freedom and higher education.
Barge passed away in 2003 and Keating passed away in 2007, but their relationship solidified the importance of sharing professional knowledge and insight. They also exemplify what Jones referred to as the “revelatory intimacy” that sometimes comes with letter writing. “Writing a lot of letters will not turn you into Lincoln or Shakespeare,” he said, “but if you do it enough, you begin to put your essential self on paper whether you mean to or not.”
In addition to helping you learn valuable information from another person, writing things by hand can help develop other important skills. Today’s students have never known a world without the Internet. Because most kids have easy access to smartphones, computers and tablets, many school districts across the country are moving away from teaching cursive and other writing skills. However, research has shown that writing things by hand can increase brain function. In 2011, the Chicago Tribune reported on a study performed by researchers at Indiana University. The researchers used neuroimaging scans to measure the brain activity of two groups of preschool children—both groups had been shown different letters, but one group had then practiced printing the letters while the other group practiced saying them. The writing group showed high-level brain activation and also demonstrated improved letter recognition, which experts say is the No. 1 predictor of reading ability. Other benefits of writing include aiding memory and fine-tuning motor skills. Learning by repetition strengthens the motor pathways so that students can focus more on the content of their writing rather than the mechanics of forming the letters.
The parts of the brain that are developed when writing are also important for other subjects, as well. According to Edutopia.org, part of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, the practice of writing enhances the brain’s ability to take in, process, retain and retrieve information. It helps with creative problem solving and increases vocabulary, which come in handy in math and science. Many school districts are starting to recognize the importance of writing—for example, in Georgia, high school curricula have recently been changed to include a writing component in most subjects in an effort to improve literacy and critical thinking.
Easy access to instantaneous communications like email and social media can make it tempting to use these modes in place of writing letters. While utilizing social media to promote and support your practice is important, do not underestimate the value of the handwritten word. Adding patients to an email listserve or Facebook page will help them know what is going on with your practice, but sending personal communication, like birthday cards or thank-you notes, makes patients more likely to remember you and recommend you to friends and family. It also helps them know that you care about their wellbeing and build a rapport. Patients will feel more comfortable sharing their concerns if they feel like they are more than just a name on a sign-in sheet
In addition to the personal connections letters make, sending them also makes sound business sense. In June 2012, Forbes.com contributor Robert Reiss hosted a roundtable with CEOs of various companies to find out what helps them succeed. When asked what he does to connect with customers, Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint Nextel said, “Handwritten letters. I know it’s kind of old fashioned, but I think in today’s digital world, customers notice and appreciate that we take time to write letters to them. One employee and his team started a letter-writing campaign, thanking customers based upon their longevity.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the American Customer Satisfaction Index recently cited Sprint Nextel as the No. 1 most improved service-company in America over the past four years.
In addition to sending handwritten letters to patients, chiropractors should also consider the example of Drs. Keating and Barge. Chiropractors could use letters to learn new techniques and philosophies from their colleagues across town or on the other side of the world. Conferences and roundtables are wonderful avenues for professional development, but connecting one-on-one with a colleague you admire could yield immeasurable benefits for you personally and professionally.
Social media and more old-fashion modes of communication like writing letters or cards can coexist in the chiropractic world. The key is to strike a balance between disseminating important information in a timely fashion and taking the time to let patients know you care. After all, no technology can ever replace the feeling of opening the mailbox and seeing a handwritten letter, regardless of whom it is from.