Newswise — When Americans write personal messages into the Valentine's Day cards they send this year, what will they say?
Those who expect deep and personal notes will probably be disappointed, said Barry Shank, associate professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University.
Even when they have the opportunity to use their own words, people often us the same language, clichÃ©s and stereotypes found in the greeting cards themselves, said Shank, who is author of "A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture" (Columbia University Press, 2004).
"There is this belief that if you handwrite a message, then somehow it is more true to your feelings and more original than a store-bought card," Shank said. "But that's not really the case. There are standard phrases, standard clichÃ©s, that almost everyone uses, even when they are writing a message themselves."
In researching A Token of My Affection, Shank examined thousands of used greeting cards housed in the Bowling Green State University Popular Culture Library to see the personal messages people wrote on the cards.
Before he examined the collection, Shank said he believed that the limited, stereotypical messages found on most Valentines and other greeting cards were simply the result of mass production.
Companies couldn't produce cards that were too complex, or too subtle, because they wouldn't be able to sell enough to make a profit.
"My thesis was that people would write their real feelings in the handwritten notes that they included on the cards," he said.
But Shank was surprised by what he found.
The most common marking in greeting cards, other than the signature, was the underlining of key words in the pre-printed messages. Even when people did write messages, the language hardly differed from what was in the card.
"I realized then that people really meant what was printed in those cards," Shank said. "They don't mean something else. Their true feelings are printed there in the messages.
"No longer could I blame the greeting card industry for dumbing down their cards. They are in an intensely competitive industry, and they have to produce what people want to buy, and they are very successful."
That doesn't mean greeting cards are examples of great poetry, he said, but they do provide the messages people want to send to their loved ones.
Shank said he believes the popularity of greeting cards shows how our economy has affected our emotional lives " which is one of the key themes of his book.
Greeting cards are popular because they allow us to show our true feelings, while at the same time distancing ourselves from those feelings.
"In an economy that demands we move constantly, where there is not only a high divorce rate, but a lack of extended families, people are constantly having to end relationships and begin new ones," Shank said.
Greeting cards reflect a culture in which many relationships are necessarily temporary, Shank said.
"We can send messages in greeting cards that reveal our feelings but, because we didn't write them, still distance ourselves from these feelings as well. We don't do this consciously, of course, but it is just part of our normal lives in the modern economy."
Greeting card companies have recognized this transient nature of American life, Shank said. He found a trend report produced for the Norcross Greeting Card Company in 1959 that talked about the new "rootless American" and how "family separation is a very significant aspect of contemporary life." The report went on to urge the company to produce cards for these rootless Americans that address "the ties of love and/or hatred with those they've left behind..."
Shank said greeting cards have always reflected the tension between our economic and personal lives.
The development of greeting cards begins in the 1840s, just as the market economy was emerging, he said. Valentines were actually the first prototypes of greeting cards " the next type of greeting card, commercial Christmas cards, didn't appear until near the end of the 19th century.
These first Valentines didn't open, but were single sheets with several layers of high quality lace paper, foil, and lithographed images like flowers.
"They didn't have a lot of words. But they had a lot of texture and a lot of images. The complexity and detail in these Valentines were supposed to show the class status of the person sending it. From the male point of view, a fancy Valentine showed that he was a good potential mate, that he was part of the new middle class that was developing at the time," Shank said.
The connection between greeting cards and the new economy was also very evident in comic Valentines, or as they were sometimes known "vinegar Valentines." These were insulting Valentines that people often sent to those whom they believed had unrealistic economic and class ambitions.
For example, one vinegar Valentine made fun of a clerk who tried to appear wealthier than he really was by wearing fancy clothes. This Valentine mocks "the swell clerk" who has spent his earnings on a "natty suit of clothes" that will be stuck in "a pawn shop before the month is out." The clerk will be revealed as "a dude who has and empty head, and owns an empty purse," the card said.
While vinegar Valentines are no longer made, humor is still an important part of greeting cards " but now it is more of an ironic humor.
"Today, the cards play off the inherent humor in that you are buying someone else's words to say something deeply personal," he said.
Irony does that same thing that clichÃ©s and stereotypes do in other cards " they distance you from the affection or emotion that you are expressing, according to Shank.
"All through their history, greeting cards reveal links between our economic life and our emotional life. They are evidence of how our economic structure affects our lives," he said.