By Hannah Sibona In 2020, a face-to-face meeting, more often than not, means screen-to-screen. The global pandemic, social restrictions, and the ‘new normal’ has, for many of us, radically altered our communicative social practices. Only weeks before Europe shut down, I was conducting research on mobile phones among young women working in the garment factories of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The participants stressed the importance of making video calls on their smartphones. This technology allowed them not only to maintain frequent contact with their homes and family in rural villages, but enabled a feeling of closeness because they felt that “they are in front of me, they are nearby me, I am with them”. At the time, I remember being surprised that video calling could have such power. It was only once I got back to Europe that ‘Zoom call’ and ‘online drinks’ suddenly became common phrases, and represented a vital form of connection.
Bridging distances between people is an essential function of technology, and this year communication at a distance matters more than ever before. But changing circumstances have radically altered my modes of communication before. In 2012, I willingly entered a form of social isolation when I spent the year as a volunteer teacher on the remote island of Pentecost, Vanuatu. Although I was in good company among a handful of other volunteers and a local community that looked after us, in other ways I was very much cut off from the rest of the world. There was no internet, very expensive mobile phone calls were reserved for letting family know I was still alive, and the postal service was chronically unreliable. To seasoned anthropologists, significant periods with minimal contact with home, sporadic postal communication, and extortionate international phone calls, might seem like par for the course. For my millennial friends fresh out of university, I was entering a brave new world in which they could also participate by sending a letter, and maybe receiving one in return.
In the early 2000s, letter writing was competing with emails and instant messaging, and letter writing was losing. We were taught how to layout a formal letter in school, and sending postcards was still a holiday pastime for some. Letter writing was predominately attempted in modern foreign language classes, where we described our appearance and invented some exciting hobbies. The prospect of writing to someone you knew well, but was currently having a wildly different experience on the other side of the world, was therefore a novel one for my peers. But they rose to the occasion and even played with the medium. One contained a printed screenshot of a half-drafted email that read “Dear Hannah, this is what an email looks like…”. Another brilliantly creative letter came in a carefully bubble wrapped envelope, which my fellow volunteers demanded I opened in front of them, expecting it to be filled with sweets. Instead, it contained an empty glass soft drink bottle with a rolled-up piece of paper (stained brown with teabags and carefully singed at the edges) inserted in the neck. A genuine message in a bottle arriving on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Nevertheless, every letter was treated with reverence because of the distance these fragile folds of paper had travelled. The smudged postmarks revealed when and where it had been posted, as well as clues to the route taken on its transcontinental journey. Crumpled corners, addresses blurred by rainwater, suspicious rodent teeth marks, testament to the hardships it had endured. But, the weeks and sometimes months it took for letters to arrive meant that epistle dialogue was disconnected. They were reacting to the contents of my letters, but the events I had described had happened months ago. Empathising with my experience required a leap of imagination based on incomplete information. Aspects of island life they perceived to be hard were not necessarily so, and the picture of beach life paradise was also far from the truth. On the other hand, the world they were describing was completely familiar to me. Yet it was so far from my present experience, and remembering the hustle of a rush hour train commute also felt very strange.
Video calls, by contrast, can mimic the intimacy of ‘real life’ closeness. The immediate feedback of interjections, tone, and facial expressions were the bits of my friends that were missing from their letters. However, after pressing the ‘leave meeting’ button, I do not think I am the only one to feel a void as sound and voice are instantly severed. Meanwhile, letters in Vanuatu did not end when the page ended. They were re-read, sometimes aloud to other volunteers, contents were reflected upon, and eventually thoughtfully replied to. And, discovering the pile of preserved correspondence years later sparks almost the same fascination as on first opening. Video calls may feel close, but they are fleeting. Both help us travel to faraway places, but letters force us to imagine other worlds.
Hannah Sibona is an alumnus of the Social and Cultural Anthropology Master at the VU and is currently working on an article about mobile phone relationships in Bangladesh