I knew she liked sparkly things. So this spring, I found myself in the greeting card aisle of my local supermarket looking for the perfect card to give the bubbly fourth-grade girl I’d spent the last three years reading to as part of a weekly volunteer programme. She was moving away, and I wanted to give her something to commemorate our time together.
Sure enough, I came across a cover with a wild-eyed golden retriever puppy flying, its tongue unfurled mid-air, with a volcano of glitter erupting in the background. On the inside, it announced, “You are like an explosion of awesome.” She’d love it. I started brainstorming my little goodbye note to her before I even got to the checkout.
In the past year, I’ve sent cards to a close girlfriend who landed a new job, a family member with a terminal illness and a former co-worker experiencing her first holiday season without her mother. I’ve also sent out a few of the “just because” variety.
Growing up in the 1990s, browsing the card aisle of a pharmacy chain or big-box store, you could reliably find your go-to cards: for Christmas; baby showers or unexpected deaths; birthdays for your dad, aunt, sister-in-law, grandson and so on. But now, depending on the season, situated right next to those classics, you’ll find cards for Valentine’s Day, miscarriage empathy and getting a driver’s licence, too.
It will always mean more to your mum to get a card from you in the mail than an email, no matter how heartfelt the words.
The variety grows tenfold online, where brands like Emily McDowell & Friends have carved their own niche through non-traditional categories like Reasonable Achievements and cards to give someone “when you’re kind of together but it’s not a big deal”.
Exchanging letters is a practice that criss-crosses centuries. But its continued relevance in our digitised daily lives is somewhat of a marvel. In the age of Amazon Prime, why go online to order a physical card, receive it, hand-write a message, then send or hand-deliver it? We have texting, email, WhatsApp, social media and numerous other means to constantly keep in touch. Nevertheless, cards, in their own analogue, inherently unhurried nature, endure.
It will always mean more to your mum to get a card from you in the mail than an email, no matter how heartfelt the words. And most men recognise that a long happy anniversary text instead of a personalised card (or other fanfare) is a dump-able offence. The handwritten note has a way of embodying the adage that it’s the thought that counts.
And sending them isn’t actually so hard. While it’s true that drafting a card takes time and effort, I’d counter that trying to coordinate “congrats on your job promotion” drinks with a friend, dragging yourself to the bar post-workday, then picking up the $20-plus (Dh73.45) tab takes more. Millennials get a bad rap for ghosting in relationships and flaking on plans, but we still crave the sort of connection and meaning that can’t be found in breathless small talk while catching up — or inside a blue text bubble we read alone in the dark.
Greeting cards as a tether to family and friends
Society has transformed, several times over, since the brothers William, Joyce, and Rollie Hall rebranded their successful postcard and wrapping paper business as Hallmark in the 1920s.
Now, building on its Main Street ubiquity, Hallmark gathers “employee resource groups” to try to ensure the cards being created are inclusive and accurately reflect the zeitgeist.
For consumers, the comfort moulded by cards still comes not just in receiving them but in giving them, too: When Kasia Galazka, a 34-year-old writer from Atlanta, feels weighted by the debilitating depression brought on by her bipolar disorder, she turns to greeting cards as a tether to family and friends.
She and her husband use them to communicate during these bouts as well. She’ll wait for the small burst of mental energy needed and pen a quick note: “I’m sorry,” “I love you” or “Let’s get ice cream and things will pick back up again soon.”
Would the most earnest of texts, or even a quick phone call after work, have had the same effect?
Vanessa Toro, a marketing executive and a card aficionado who has sent out three cards a week for the past five years or so, considers the act “a stance against the rush.”
A 2018 survey found that 81 per cent considered a handwritten note more meaningful than digital correspondence. It might surprise some that 87 per cent of surveyed millennials said the same thing.
While some traditional card brands pool their internal resources to stay on top of cultural trends, Minted, a San Francisco-based brand founded 12 years ago, lets consumers be its business guides. Each of its card creations is sourced from an international roster of independent artists and designers, whose work is then voted on by the public. Designers who win the challenge receive a cash prize, a platform for their work and a commission from every sale.
“What we’re seeing emerge from the crowd of designers, and what’s being voted by consumers, is a nod toward people leading flawed and difficult lives and trying to make the best of them,” said Minted’s founder, Mariam Naficy.
Politics is polarising our families and communities. There’s a nationwide epidemic of anxiety and loneliness and a whirr of existential dread, acutely among young people, about our warming planet. In that context, it makes sense that so many of us are still seeking hope or humble encouragement in the form of a $5 piece of folded paper — something that can last as long as our desire to have it as a keepsake.
The recipients imagine us — in those precious few minutes between digital notifications — perusing the rows of cards, carefully selecting the inside-jokey message just right for them. And as we wait for them to read it, we imagine them opening the envelope, their faces lighting up. There’s something about it that may never get old.
— Caroline Cox is a noted culture commentator