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Researchers have found that the written word sets hearts more aflutter when compared to leaving our loving feelings “after the beep.”

by Dan Griffin

If you can’t be with the one you love, which is more romantic, a voicemail or an email?  You might think, “Voicemail, since it is more personal, conveys more feeling, has the words and music.” Two California State University researchers would have agreed with you.

And all of you would be wrong.

A recent Atlantic Monthly article describes how researchers measured the physiological responses of individuals composing either romantic emails or voicemails and found that the written word sets hearts more aflutter when compared to leaving our loving feelings “after the beep”

Media naturalness theory contends that the further we venture from face-to-face communication, the less natural and effective our efforts to connect become. This theory contends that the less communication is face to face the more likely it will decrease physiological arousal, and arouse fewer emotions.

It makes intuitive sense, what could be more intimate than the sound of a human voice? It seems, though, that writing an email arouses deeper emotions within the composer,  indicated by the movement of facial muscles, and sweaty hands and feet.  That might not sound romantic to you, but it is the physiological arousal that accompanies emotional experience – the experience of an emotion.  Emails contain a greater amount of evocative and positive language resulting in more thoughtful and explicit communiques, compared to voicemails.

The authors also expected that using email for romantic communication would be more frustrating than using voicemail- for one, they take longer.

But why were emailers more aroused?  Was it the thought of their beloved?

In attempting to explain their results, the researchers pondered that “senders engage with email messages longer and may think about the task more deeply than when leaving voicemails. This extra processing may increase arousal.”

Admit it, who doesn’t get turned on by a little “extra processing?”

In leaving a voicemail, we are engaged in simultaneously creating and then delivering a message, even if our goal is to convey our loving feeling: Live, on-stage- one take, no revisions. Many people leave them as they attend to other tasks.

Writing is different, even if our chosen medium is the humble email, as this research suggests.  When we attempt to articulate our tender feelings in writing, we enter an inner dialogue of self-exploration: we forage for the more precise word, the more resonant phrasing.  If the writing is done with particular care and attention, there is a Goldilocks quality to it: We rustle through an assortment of terms, discarding one, perhaps as “too weak” or another “too ordinary” until we settle upon the one that is “just right”.  In doing so, we have discovered something about ourselves: “This is closer to how I really feel…this expresses me best.”   What gets aroused is something like “Eureka!-I found it!”. I found a more explicit means of expressing an important experience- the answer to the question: “How do I love thee?” Doing so also acquaints me with the most updated version of who I am.

When I was about 10 years old, my parents went on a “Marriage Encounter” weekend through our church.  When they came home, they were a little scary – to me, at least. They seemed like different people.  They were affectionate in their words and actions.  They seemed to enjoy each other’s company more than I had ever seen.  The crux of their “encounter” I later discovered, centered on making dialogues with each other via writing. This was a radical departure for a World War II era conventional marriage between a Brooklyn Italian and her Midwestern Irish farm boy husband.  I admit that I snuck a peek at their “composition notebook”- and what I remember most are descriptions of moments: “the time you were so mad and all you could say was “VOOM!” and then we both laughed like crazy…”  They reflected on those moments they felt most connected to and some of the moments that scared them to death.  They used writing to first crystallize those events into feelings and then share what made that fleeting moment so significant.  I do not think they would have ever come close to that kind of intimacy if not for the scrawls in that tattered notebook.  It allowed them to look inward and reveal something neither of them would ever do otherwise. They could express what made them feel loved and what scared them. They admitted being vulnerable- that the other had the power to make them feel many things.

If we take the time to write to our beloved, sharing those now clarified feelings, we are choosing exposure; we are risking intimacy, choosing to make ourselves vulnerable.

Vulnerability can be terrifying, but as Brene Brown argues in her excellent book, Daring Greatly, characterizing it as: “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Why is this so? In my experience, vulnerability – often the exposure of our own fear and pain – can feel like giving someone a weapon to use on you at some later date.  But risking vulnerability, revealing where we can be hurt, also opens the door to greater understanding of ourselves and our partners.   If we want to be understood, we have to venture revealing what often acutely feels to be private, even secret.  Sharing our secrets, our Achilles heels, is made a little less fearsome by writing. By sharing, and inviting the same from a lover, we better grasp what the ancient Greek meant by: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle”- we are imperfect, we each falter, we all fall.

“Understanding is love’s other name…Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less.” wrote, Thich Nhat Hanh.

All this is possible via email?  Well, it won’t happen in a voicemail. Whether it’s an email, shared Google doc or old skool pencil and paper, the act of writing can reveal that our rivers run deeper than we might assume.  The empirically supported 21 minute writing exercise  is “new and improved” way of couples can write themselves closer to each other.

The more care and attention you give your prose, the deeper the rewards.  As the author of Daring Greatly explains:  “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.”  And the root of “courage” is “heart”. Write that down. Then write from your heart.

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