The Importance of Written Communication
In a post a few days ago, I wrote that the writings of Thomas Jefferson probably had the single greatest impact on my thinking. I thought President’s day was an appropriate day to write a little bit about the letters he and John Adams wrote to one another.
I was reminded of these letters during a converation a friend and I had a few weeks back. We were talking about how difficult it can be to discuss complex, controversial, or emotionally charged subjects via email. In the end, though, we concluded that email really isn’t the problem. Everyone seems to have a favorite reason to hate email - and there are lots of good reasons - but many of the complaints boil down to problems inherent to any kind of written communication.
According to historians, Jefferson and Adams wrote close to 400 letters to one another over the course of fifty years, and the contents of those letters was much more than just your standard chit-chat. These two men had great respect for one another as fellow freedom fighters and they certainly agreed on certain issues, but they disagreed on much. I’m sure drafting the letters required much effort. They were people like us who were sometimes aggravated, frustrated, and even angered by things they read - including letters from friends.
I have little doubt that educated people who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, as a general rule, put more effort into everything they said - both spoken and written - which is why I think email would have been treated with the same respect. I can only guess how the exchanges would have been different if Jefferson and Adams had used email, but I’d like to think they would have put the same effort into it - at least most of the time. It is certainly possible they could have.
More to the point, we can also put that kind of care and effort into our communicaiton - even via email.
Written communication is difficult. It requires hard work. Writing is not an easy thing to do well, and I can tell you from experience that it’s even hard to do it poorly sometimes. If you ask me, it’s worth the effort. What a shame it would have been if Jefferson and Adams had taken the easy way out and only discussed difficult topics when they could see each other in person and didn’t make the effort to document those discussions in writing.