In an era when communications are spliced into 140-character tweets, and when school children are taught typing but not cursive—and certainly not taught what used to go under the craftsmanlike name of “penmanship”—one might think that the hand-written note would be on its way out.
However, there’s a remarkable persistence to hand-written communication, especially when it comes to expressions of appreciation and gratitude.
Philanthropy, and gift-giving more generally, are particularly personal endeavors—and only a hand-written thank you matches the personality invested in a gift. A person’s own handwriting is an expression of self in a way that few other things are—people treasure hand-written notes.
In the nonprofit world, fundraisers know that the attraction of the hand-written note is so strong that even an obviously fake “hand-written” thank you message on a solicitation letter can spark donations by suggesting a kind of intimacy.
The fact that penmanship is no longer taught is no obstacle to persistence of hand-written letters. Certainly complaints about poor penmanship are hardly new. Consider, for example, from the nineteenth century, George Eliot’s description of her Middlemarch hero, the Oxford-educated Fred Vincy:
At that time the opinion existed that it was beneath a gentleman to write legibly, or with a hand in the least suitable to a clerk. Fred wrote the lines demanded in a hand as gentlemanly as that of any viscount or bishop of the day: the vowels were all alike and the consonants only distinguishable as turning up or down, the strokes had a blotted solidity and the letters disdained to keep the line—in short, it was a manuscript of that venerable kind easy to interpret when you know beforehand what the writer means.
Good penmanship doesn’t matter (at least up to the point of illegibility!); what truly matters is the expression of self found in a hand-written note—and that expression of personality and intimacy matters as much today as it did in the nineteenth century.
Management guru Tom Peters asserts gentlemanly illegible script like Fred Vincy’s is almost a plus: When it comes to thank-you notes, "barely readable scrawl is best. It really says you’re being personal.”
Peters was speaking about business executives writing thank you notes, but, as he observes, “we’re all suckers” for a hand-written note—and people want to give, and to receive, that token of gratitude and appreciation as much as ever. I’m optimistic that Facebook and Twitter will not wipe out the practice of hand-written notes, and especially hand-written notes of thanks.
Of course, many young people will soon arrive at adulthood unable to write in cursive—so might the “hand-printed” note replace the “hand-written” note? I suspect many young adults will recognize that cursive has an elegance and personality missing in printing. Perhaps colleges—which now have remedial courses in etiquette—will take up teaching their students cursive as well?