Be Mine: Love letters still powerful Valentine's tradition

Saturday, February 13, 2016
Jennifer Adams

Valentine's Day conjures up thoughts of romance, and it is a time when couples tend to express their personal relationships through love letters. While today's cultural rituals surrounding courtship and romance are different, it seems that not much has changed during the past 100 years in how people express their love.

That's what Jennifer L. Adams, DePauw University associate professor of communication and theater, found while studying hundreds of love letters.

"When I give presentations about letters, people often respond by sharing with me stories about the role that love letters played or are playing in their relationships," she says. "I believe that people still want to express their feelings, and many turn to the written word to do so."

However, the style and form of love expressions have changed over time.

"We no longer favor long, poetic prose or overly sappy language," Adams says. "Yet, topics of interest for lovers still include devotion, loyalty, physical adoration and connection. And many of the metaphors that we use to describe being in love -- like 'falling in love' or 'crazy in love' -- have not changed, either."

In a course Adams teaches about letters, memoirs and journals, she finds that many students say they hope they will receive love letters similar to the ones they study. To Adams, that suggests there is still an audience for love letters, even among younger people who have had more exposure to digital media.

For aspiring love letter writers, Adams offers the following tips based on her research:

* Write love letters in one's authentic voice. Avoid letter-writing guides and a thesaurus; instead, sincerely express deep personal feelings and emotions inspired by the relationship.

* Strive to kindle a memory or other moment of connection between the couple. For example, the letter writers in Adams' study wrote about picnics they attended together or noted moments when they shared a kiss.

* Express reciprocity in feelings between the letter writer and sender. The level of familiarity and closeness represented by a love letter should be matched on the part of the receiver.

* Confirm the virtues, traits or other appealing characteristics of the recipient -- whether it is expressions of physical adoration or other ways in which the letter writer is inspired.

* Above all, letters should be, quite simply, romantic -- whatever that word might mean to different couples in different contexts. Tell the recipient the unique, beautiful or inspiring things that sometimes go unsaid in everyday communication.

"A love letter is the sender's big chance to actually express what is loved about the other," Adams says.

While contemporary communication through ubiquitous email and social media is often considered more efficient because of speed and instant gratification, Adams argues that something is lost in exchange for the immediacy and brevity.

"Communication through text, email or social media formats struggles to imitate the rich expression that comes with face-to-face communication, because we can not see one another's reactions and subtle nonverbal qualifiers in their speech," Adams says. "Written letters, while not as rich as face-to-face communication, exist in a material form that is more real than digital. Thus, readers of letters can interpret meaning from the choice of paper and writing instrument as well as the style and quality of the writer's handwriting."

For those who still insist on going digital or who are separated geographically, couples can celebrate Valentine's Day by taking advantage of numerous ways to connect online through text and face-to-face formats. "Video chat offers the best substitute for couples to be together in terms of being able to communicate using both verbal and nonverbal channels," Adams says. "Instant digital communication in the form of texts or instant messaging in social media offers an opportunity for short exchanges, which allow lovers to perceive that their significant other is still a part of their everyday life."

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