Letters – a dying breed in Denmark?

By Anne-Kirstin Berger, photos by Guki Giunashvili and Anne-Kirstin Berger

These days, in a village close to Valencia, Laura and Ingrid, 12 and 15 years old, will open their post box and find something different than advertising papers and bills for their parents: two envelops, carefully crafted out of gift paper with notes on it, carrying greetings from the North of Europe.

A luxury good?

Getting a handwritten letter has become a privilege, and writing one is an act of nostalgia. Faster means of communication have made the paper-based messaging rare. This is, of course, a phenomenon happening all over Europe but it is particularly clear in Denmark, where between 2007 and 2017, the number of letters has shrunk by two thirds, from 1,143 to 307 millions, according to PostNord.

The amount of letters sent in Denmark has been constantly decreasing since the beginning of the century (graph: Anne-Kirstin Berger)

In its 2016 annual report, the logistics provider PostNord, that is jointly owned by the Swedish and the Danish state, declares that in Denmark, the “mail volumes are falling […] more quickly than anywhere else in Europe.” This is of course a challenge for the company, which has reacted by cutting its services: two years ago, the day-to-day delivery of priority letters was abolished, and so were deliveries on Saturdays. The Danish postal service is also the most expensive one in Europe: 27 DKK (3.63 Euro) costs a domestic letter, significantly more than the EU-average of 6.55 DKK (0.88 Euro).

The average price to send a domestic letter is 6.55 DKK in Europe, but the Danish post charges 27 DKK (graph: Anne-Kirstin Berger)

Digital state

One reason why letters have become rare in Denmark lies with the state itself: public authorities have widely withdrawn from sending printed messages. Tax notices and payroll accounts are delivered through the digital “e-boks”, and medical prescriptions find their way to doctors and pharmacies virtually, thanks to the CPR number. It is due to such innovations that Denmark is praised as a “world leader in digitisation” by the European Commission. For the sake of modernity, this development is desirable. But what does it mean for the future of the “good old letter”? It is often said that new media expand, but never replace other means of communication. For example, the fax is still being used, although less often, and there remains a considerable amount of people using fixed telephones. The telegraph, by contrast, is very rarely used. What about the letter?

The charm of paper

The day before the two letters start their journey to Valencia, Marina Soriano is sitting at a table full of papers in a corner of Café Smagløs in Aarhus. It is quarter past seven and the café is crowded: letter writers are all around. They followed the invitation of the club “Post a Letter”, which organizes a gathering each month. Everyone can join – an offer which many people take, especially because PostNord sponsors the postage stamps. It is the best place in Aarhus to make sure that letters are not a dying breed.

Once per month, letter lovers meet in a café in Aarhus, a project organised by “Post a Letter” (photo: Guki Giunashvili)

“I have always written letters”, says Marina. “It is more personal, and you think about every word, so each one of them matters.” Laura and Ingrid are her sisters, and while Marina is studying in Aarhus, she keeps in contact by sending them a handwritten message from time to time. “They love to get letters, and they have a box where they keep them”, tells Marina. A few meters to her left, at the bar, Natasha Anderson and Julie Richardson, both from Denmark, are chopping paper. The two young women have made a “Gækkebrev”, a Danish Easter tradition: “We cut out these shapes”, Natasha shows, pointing to the yellow origami paper with round and squared holes that she is holding in her right hand. Julie explains: “We write a letter to someone and then we don’t write who it is from, but we write a Danish rime and put dots for the letters in our name.” The receiver has to guess who sent the letter. If s/he does not find it out, s/he is obligated to buy a chocolate Easter egg for the letter sender. Definitely a tradition which does not work via e-mail.

If you want to post a letter yourself, find out about the next letter café at the Facebook page of Post a Letter. You are rather interested in digital messages? Read more about the state of digitalisation in Denmark in the report by the European Commission.

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