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When You Care Enough Not To Send The Very Worst

Human contact is scarce under quarantine, and we could use more color in our mail.

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As many of us are quarantined at home and personal contact is harder to come by, I’ve found myself writing and sending a lot of cards. It’s a welcome outlet that allows for more intimate communication with friends, even when we can’t see each other in person. A handwritten card is a physical artifact in a way that a text message isn’t, and the process is a pleasant, stress-relieving diversion. It so happens that the Post Office has designated April as National Card and Letter Writing Monthand it couldn’t have come at a more fitting time. 

I enjoy the process of writing and sending cards: choosing a card, carefully composing the message, writing the address on the envelope, dropping it into the mailbox in the hope that I’ll brighten someone’s day. Like clacking on a typewriter or putting on a vinyl record, it’s one of those tangible, tactile experiences that are increasingly rare. But I am picky about the cards I choose: they must be attractive and not too plain, but they must also not be too sappy.

That, of course, is the opposite of many, even most mainstream greeting cards: I come across plenty that are completely unsuitable, adorned with shallow, saccharine, and generic sentiments. The very worst can even have that slightly eerie algorithmic feel of having been produced without human involvement.

There’s such a large selection of greeting cards available at your typical local supermarket or drugstore, but there’s little real choice. What about a selection of more versatile blank cards, rather than hyper-specific (and usually sappy) cards for a copious variety of occasions or voluminous but rigidly pre-defined relationships and situations between sender and recipient. (“Great Grandma From Kid”; “Grandson – Kid”; “Daughter & Husband”; “Daughter & Family”; “Mother – Religious”; is your head spinning yet?) 

Granted, cards that better fit my tastes do exist more readily at expensive boutique-type stores, but not everyone has easy access to them or, frankly, can afford them. Stationery boutiques are simply not as prevalent as the greeting card section at your local Target or drugstore. Additionally, it is easy to find and purchase mass-market cards at economical prices—you might pay $5 or so for a boxed set. These serve plenty of people perfectly well (annual retail sales of greeting cards are at least $7 billion). But for those of us who aren’t satisfied, perhaps mainstream greeting card selections, often filling an entire full-length aisle, could offer a bit more variety in terms of the nature of the designs available?

Take, for example, a card whose cover reads “You’re all the nicest words I could possibly think of.” Maybe that sells the sender a little short. Maybe they’re actually able to think up some of their own nice words.

Cards like these imply that there’s a desire for the appearance of a handwritten message, but less of a desire to actually come up with one. Why expend the effort to compose a personalized message when a prefabricated platitude will do? Ideally, the card should serve as a vessel for the sender’s message, not as the message itself.

If you think a lot about this—obviously, I do—the implication of a card like this or this is that the sender just can’t be bothered, despite the fact that they are bothering. There is something strange going on here: it’s almost as if we’re paying to outsource the “production” of kind and thoughtful words. And those boutique cards: why should we pay even more of a premium for something more closely approximating genuine human feeling? Is real emotion a scarce good these days?

Perhaps this emotional outsourcing is actually what many people shopping for greeting cards want, to relieve what pressure there is in thinking up their own message or specific thoughts about the recipient’s circumstances. Surely, that can sometimes be awkward. Or maybe they consider themselves bad with words and find validation in an approximation of their thoughts reflected in pre-written messages.

Yet if these ever-so-prevalent cards are truly representative of our relationships, what does that say about us? Are we supposed to mouth these shallow sentiments to each other and feel good and clever about it? I can’t speak for others, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought of anyone as the “sparkling rosé of people”—and I’m not sure I’m able to.

These inhibit a more nuanced expression of our thoughts. (Perhaps it’s a bit like reaching for a calculator until a simple math problem becomes difficult without one.) For me—and I would hope for the recipients of my cards—a mass-manufactured message to which the sender has merely signed off cannot compare to something thoughtful, personal, handwritten.

I’ve joked that if I ever get a card with one of these sappy pre-written messages from someone, I might write them a card back describing why I was unsatisfied. That’d probably be rather rude, petty and passive-aggressive, sure, but…. It’s just plain nice to receive a thoughtfully written card. It’s so much more personal than a text. The sender is embodied in their words and their handwriting, which is even more meaningful in these pandemic-haunted days. And in our current digital era, it is a satisfying and somewhat unique experience.

Every time I browse the greeting cards section at a mainstream store, I think of starting my own greeting card business. I would design and sell versatile, unisex cards that are pointedly blank inside, maybe even with a removable sticky note proclaiming “Come up with your own original message to write here!”

But in the end, it’s not so much about the words or the design, but the caring that they convey, the stamp of a person embedded in them: time to choose the card, work to compose and write the message, time to find a mailbox. It’s a much more involved and meticulous process than pulling out one’s phone; it feels more human. It’s a worthwhile endeavor even—or especially—with the immediacy of the internet at our fingertips, and the isolation of quarantine heavy on our minds.

Rachel Taylor is a student journalist and built environment enthusiast. She writes from Montgomery County, Maryland.

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