A Farewell to Handwriting? The Disappearance of a Cultural Instrument

Once upon a time and not so very long ago, we used to sit down, take a sheet of paper, pick up a writing instrument and put words down on paper when we wanted to write a letter. Those of us born in the past twenty years though have grown up in the age of electronic media where the keyboard of the computer or smartphone replaces the pen and the monitor screen ousts paper. The annual National Handwriting Day which was recently celebrated on January 23 aims to remind us of the value and importance of such a form of human communication. But would its disappearance really be a loss?

In our business and professional lives electronic communication offers such a host of advantages that doing without out it is simply unthinkable. Electronic messages save paper, instantly reach the recipient, can simultaneously be sent to any number of people, and in marked contrast to so many people’s handwriting, are easily readable. But does the same apply to personal private correspondence?

Loss of the personal note

Instead of sending holiday greetings on postcards, we now send photos with or without a few words for friends and followers, and publish them for all the world to see on Facebook or Instagram where they’re just as publically answered with Likes or comments. Handwritten letters, long ago replaced by electronic mail, have now become a rarity. Does this also go with a loss of personal closeness and good writing style?


What you write not how you write is what matters

You might think that whether a greeting is personal or not depends much more on what it actually says and not on whether or not it’s handwritten, and I’d completely agree with you. Because what’s truly important is that you actually are writing and what you write – and not the means you chose to write. Empty phrases in beautiful handwriting remain just what they are – empty impersonal phrases. Sincere greetings, thoughts and expressions of sympathy are the ingredients that make a letter personal – regardless of whether it’s in handwriting or sent to us as an email.



Always an original

And yet: the handwriting of a person shows much more than just what it writes. At the same time it’s always the expression of a personality and as such is unique. This is one of the reasons why so many people dearly cherish the original autogramm they get from an artist they admire. And in painting the signature of the artist stands not just for the genuineness of the original but also for the artist’s particular style of painting. It’s understood as handwriting and gives the work its special value on the art market which even the most perfect copy cannot hope to achieve – as long as it’s recognised as a copy.


What does handwriting really tell us about a person?

Their handwriting distinguishes people from one and another and is recognisable like the sound of their voice. What it tells us about a person’s character is what a method of handwriting analysis called graphology claims to know. Whether it’s plain and simple or frilly, whether the letters are large and powerful or small and crushed, whether they’re disconnected and widely spaced or connected together in one continuous flow – graphologists claim that all this says something about the writer’s personality. And yet graphology is not a science.

I well remember a man who was gifted with an extraordinary sense of his own importance and a domineering unbending personality yet you would never have suspected such character traits from looking at his tiny unassuming handwriting. Even though graphanalysis can be used to verify the authenticity of handwriting, inferring the character of somebody from their handwriting is problematic and should be treated with great caution.


A shift away from graphology

Such a view has now been widely adopted by many human resources departments in companies and public authorities. They used to believe that a job applicant’s handwriting gave insight into their character and personality profile and factored this into their decision-making about which of the candidates to select for the job, and thus for a long time would only accept handwritten job applications. Only now in the digital age job applications are mainly online and no longer even require a photo or the name and gender of the applicant in order to make prior selection of candidates before the first face-to-face interview as objective, free from preconceptions and fair as possible. Here too renunciation of handwriting seems very meaningful move that by no means should be regretted.


And what does brain research say?

Writing on paper with a pen in your hand stimulates certain regions in the brain. It nurtures and preserves the brain’s fine-motor abilities and improves memory and concentration. What you’ve written by hand you don’t forget so quickly. The same goes for information as well as thoughts and feelings. And finally writing has a lot in common with drawing and therefore is also an act of design – no matter whether it’s calligraphy or just notes jotted down on a pad.

And so its development could have considerable long-term effects. This is why it’s particularly important to encourage children and young people to learn to write longhand and to show appreciation when they use it. There’s a huge difference here between those parents who write their shopping list and those who dictate it to Siri or Alexa and then read it in the supermarket on their smartphones.

And the handwriting process is particularly valuable for keeping a diary which must be the most personal and private form of communication with ourselves (not only) for young people. Because with handwriting the thoughts and feeling flow from the head through the heart and over the hand directly onto paper without any of the distancing effect that use of a computer involves.

I myself will continue to make draft versions of many of my texts in longhand and will still occasionally enjoy sending handwritten letters to people who are important to me. Now this might seem old fashioned but for me it’s got more to do with leisure hours than respect for tradition. And if there’s the odd power cut I can still continue to write because I’m not dependent on the computer. Analogue always works. Everywhere.


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