writerMore often than not, it seems that the current attitude for interpersonal interaction in the workplace is ‘arm’s length, please.’

The acceptable middle ground for exchange requires striking a delicate balance between the cloying enthusiasm evinced by helicopter managers and the tentative overtures of friendship offered by co-workers seeking to avoid any behavior that might suggest sexual harassment.

Yet the ability to make a personal connection with others remains as important as ever.

Ask anyone in business these days and they’re likely to tell you that social media—emails, tweets, and texts—have largely replaced face-to-face interactions. To many, even a phone call seems ‘retro.’ And a handwritten note? Many would argue that they’ve gone the way of the calling card! Indeed, a 2010 U.S. Postal Service survey found that the average American home received a personal letter once every seven weeks (not including greeting cards or invitations), whereas a little more than two decades ago, letters were hitting people’s boxes approximately once every two weeks! A quick search of your own memory likely confirms these diminishing statistics. Perhaps it’s time to retire the stationery….

The power of the pen

Not so fast, argues writer John Coleman, coauthor of the book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders. In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Coleman made an impassioned plea for the continuing relevance of the handwritten note. These thoughtful missives are important and unique in several ways, Coleman observed, namely:

  • They’re more valuable because they cost more to create, in terms of the time invested to craft the message and the cost involved to deliver it;
  • They’re unusual—no autocorrect or ‘Backspace’ key will erase an ill-chosen word affixed in ink—so the message must be pondered and drafted with care.
  • They carry more impact than a simple thank you (although the impact of these two words should never be underestimated). There’s something about an adroitly crafted, handwritten letter that amplifies the gratitude quotient, Coleman explains. In addition to thanking a colleague or direct report for a job well done, a handwritten note can be employed to follow up on an earlier conversation or project, complete a gift, or simply tell someone they matter. As Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami noted in a New York Times article on the subject, “More than other emotion, gratitude is the emotion of friendship. It is part of the psychological system that causes people to raise their estimates of how much value they hold in the eyes of another person.”
  • They have staying power. Yes, we can print out emails, but as Coleman so aptly points out, not many of us are proudly displaying electronic epistles on our refrigerator, mantle or desktop, nor are we likely to spend an afternoon in the attic sifting through old emails the way we would with treasured cards and letters.


The importance of gratitude

Admittedly, giving praise and sharing feelings comes more easily to some than to others.  But as life coach and counselor Laura Tice notes, everyone needs an encouraging word from time to time, even if it’s tough to request.  Asking for praise can be hard, she concedes, “because it involves sharing critical data and revealing one’s inadequacies.” Nevertheless, she maintains, the importance of praise, admiration and gratitude for greasing the wheels of social interaction should not be overlooked.

Indeed, gratitude is so important that Dr. Robert Emmons of UC Davis has made a career out of studying the nature of this emotion as well as its causes and potential consequences for human health and well-being.  His publications include Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity and Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Emmons characterizes gratitude as the ‘forgotten factor’ in happiness research, and has compiled a significant body of research indicating that those practicing an ‘attitude of gratitude’ enjoy such benefits as increased optimism, greater happiness, enhanced sleep patterns and decreased physical ailments.

But does all this gratitude and acknowledgement really have a place in the workplace? Absolutely, says Coleman. “Acknowledging other people is a critical responsibility — perhaps the critical responsibility — of a great manager, especially in sales,” Coleman asserts.  “Actually great manager is too high a bar. I might say it’s the critical skill of a good manager but even that’s understating it…Acknowledging each other is our basic responsibility as human beings living in community with other human beings.”

Perhaps Lakshmi Pratury, described as a ‘connector’ with more than two decades of experience in marketing, venture capitalism and social entrepreneurship, summed up the power of the handwritten word best in her 2007 TED talk at the annual INK Conference, a gathering she founded in an effort to assemble “the world’s movers and shakers to share ideas in India.” In her talk, Pratury reflects on the potency of the handwritten note and reflects upon the impact of a notebook her father had compiled for her in the last year of his life. “Handwriting is a disappearing art,” Pratury observes. “I’m all for email and thinking while typing, but why give up old habits for new?”  The sharing of handwritten notes allows us to convey a value legacy to our children and those we cherish, Pratury argues, rather than just a financial one. “The paper that touched [my father’s] hand is in mine,” she observes, “and I feel connected….”

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