The Technology of Friendships 1

Communicating with Friends “Old-School” Style

Can you imagine if your ancestors were transported to the year 2016 to find that we maintain friendships through texting and email? Photographs can be instantly shared on Snapchat and Instagram? Some people claim 500 “friends” on Facebook? How did we communicate with friends and family before technology played such a large role?

I can remember a time when there were not even answering machines, so if you called and no one was home you had to try again until actual contact with another human was made. Before that, party lines existed—two or more families shared a single phone line and incoming calls had different rings depending on which household the call was trying to reach. If you wanted to make an outgoing phone call, you just might pick up the phone to find yourself interrupting the conversation of a neighbor.

But even before telephone technology, letter writing was a primary means of communication. Generations ago you might leave a country bound for a new life across an ocean. Or pioneers might traverse the United States with a fair amount of certainty that they might not see family members again. So letters written that had to be transported over weeks or months by horse, stage coach, ocean liners or trains might be the only method to communicate important family information. I’ve discovered letters in my own family collections written to close family members only to discover that the family member had passed away in the time it took the letter to arrive. And yet now we can easily know what a distant cousin in another part of the world had for dinner last night.

When vacations became more popular in the early-to mid-20th-century, family members left with a vague plan of where they might go to give to family and friends. Postcards were written in hindsight instead of instant updates to Facebook pages. Or you might send a letter ahead to a town’s post office—a town you thought they might go to—and address it to General Delivery. And, of course, you didn’t call home because it was too expensive to call collect and pay phones required too many coins to call long distance.

If you were only going to be gone a week or two you just trusted that things would be OK. If there was an emergency back home such as a death in the family, you could call the police in the town where you thought they were staying and give them their license plate number and ask the police to inform them of the happening. Can you imagine such an event now?

And yet with all of this technology there does seem to be a closeness sometimes lost in many relationships. Quick texts replace deeper conversations and Facebook pages replace in-person gatherings. Yes, we still get together with friends and family, but I can recall my grandparents having much more regular contact with family and friends. Barbecues, basement parties and card games were weekly, or even nightly, occurrences.

However, waxing nostalgic doesn’t change the fact that it is a wonderful thing to be able to easily chat with a good friend who may live 1,000 miles away, and see photos of the special events in their lives with some regularity. Even if the delivery method and timing have changed, the message is still usually the same. The relationships we have with family and friends will always be a part of our lives. And I still love the thrill of opening the mailbox to find a postcard from a friend from an exotic location.