3 Simple Ways to Be Personal in the Digital Age (private post for Inc consideration)

When President George H. W. Bush passed away in 2018, one behavior of his that earned noteworthy media coverage was his lifelong affinity for sending people handwritten notes. This practice was so prevalent in his day-to-day life that it formed the basis of a 700-page book of letters he published as an autobiography.

It’s certainly understandable why this practice would garner such notice, for it is through a handwritten note that one conveys warmth, intentionality, and thoughtfulness. Someone who sends one took extra steps to put it together and place it in the actual mail.

But in the age of texting, emojis, and reactions on social media, it can seem like we’ve lost our capacity for more personal communications. Not only that, but other dark forces seem to be at play as well. A study by Cigna published only a couple of months before President Bush’s passing famously cites nearly half of Americans as experiencing some form of loneliness.

However, what many people who blame the digital age for this loneliness tend to forget is that it’s not the method of communication that matters most – it’s the impact our communication has.

Handwritten notes can indeed demonstrate tremendous warmth and thoughtfulness, especially in an age when teenagers are more likely to stare at their phones than the friends they spend time with. But there are a variety of ways to be just as thoughtful with the use of digital media as well. Below are three ideas for how you can be more personal in your digital communications.

Idea #1: Send a gratitude email

This past holiday, I decided to reach out to a handful of old friends via email to express my gratitude for their being in my life. What most people would do in a situation like this is write something like, “I’m so grateful to have you in my life.” This is a nice idea, but it’s actually quite easy to take it a step further. Instead, write out an email that identifies a specific moment you shared with that person like the following:

As I sit at my computer I’m finding myself remembering the time when (insert a specific moment that you shared together). At the time I felt (insert positive emotion), and now looking back it makes me feel grateful that you’re in my life.

It inspires me to want to make a greater effort to treat others in a way that reflects the kindness and thoughtfulness you showed me that day.

Then, of course, you can wish them well in whatever week, weekend, or month that’s coming up. But the important thing here is to identify a particular moment in time that you recall in your email. People feel seen with a scene.

Idea #2: Send a thinking-of-you text

If writing out an email feels a bit too time-consuming, no worries. Believe it or not, it’s just as possible to help someone feel seen with a mere text message. Simply zero in on a specific and positive quality they have and briefly explain how it impacts you:

Hey there, this may seem to be coming from out of nowhere but I was just (insert current activity) and thinking about how much I appreciate your (insert positive quality). I appreciate how much it inspires me to (insert positive action you take) and I just wanted to tell you that.

Idea #3: Make your own GIF

I spent years skirting around the GIF craze that has now happened across our culture for years. People would post all sorts of these moving images, be they the Shaq Shimmy or Side-Eying Chloe. More recently, I came to embrace this particular form of media. I watched a lot of movies growing up, so I saw GIFs as a socially acceptable way to convey the flurry of clips that stream through my head all day anyway. But I discovered something else.

We can make our own GIFs WHENEVER WE WANT.

By using a site like giphy.com or ezgif.com, we can actually make our own GIFs in just a few minutes. When I realized this I made one GIF to welcome home a friend after being away in Europe for several weeks:

I have an ongoing joke with another friend wherein over a series of GIFs I do all sorts of things that will make me “feel the blues,” like in this nod to the movie Airplane!:

And then, this past October, when I received a happy Canadian Thanksgiving from a newer acquaintance based in Toronto, I sent her this:

And because we hadn’t known each other very long, I wasn’t sure if my teasing her about Canadian vernacular was going to fly.

But she’s since reported to me that she’s watched the thing fifty times.

That kind of investment in something as simple as a 5-second soundless video comes from how seen the person feels in the act of receiving it. Each of these methods may be digital, but they will ultimately form a connection that may otherwise seem scarce in a time of chatbots and automated LinkedIn messages.

It’s not important what method we use to communicate with others. What matters is the impact we have. And the clearer we make it that the person who receives our 1’s and 0’s is important to us, the stronger our bond will be.

And maybe, just maybe, our world won’t feel quite so lonely after all.

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