Global Politics

Handwriting a much debated window into people's inner thoughts -- maybe

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In Charles Dickens' day, a hand-written letter was really the only form of personal correspondence. (Photo by Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters.)

Remember all that talk earlier this year about U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s signature? It’s hard to call it a signature at all, it looks more like an unfurled slinky.

People called the signature “manufactured” — “silly” even.

Who cares, right? In a way, we all do because Lew’s signature will soon appear on U.S. currency, although the Treasury Department is coy as to exactly when that’ll happen.

But when it does, will the value of the dollar be affected by the value we may place on the handwriting of the Treasury Secretary?

Does handwriting have value? Not Wendy Cope’s, at least if you ask her. Cope is a British poet. She crafts profound things out of words — exactly the kind of person you’d expect to find pleasure in putting pen to paper.

“I don’t actually like having to hand-write anything that’s for public consumption,” she said. “I’m not very proud of my handwriting.”

This is how bad it gets: when Cope wants to write a postcard, she’ll buy two because she knows she’ll mess up the first one. Charities sometimes ask her to hand-write a poem to put in an auction.

“It raises a surprising amount of money so I don’t like to say no,” she said. “But I hate doing it, because I have to do it so slowly, and then I go wrong and I have to start again.”

Cope is not alone. There are many people who feel ashamed of their penmanship. Philip Hensher has talked to some of them, and has written a book called The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting. He says most of us think of handwriting as highly personal.

“It feels like a revelation of self, so people do feel if there was some way to avoid it then that might be a good thing,” he said.

And so a lot of people just don’t write anything by hand. One recent survey cited by Hensher found that as many as 40 percent of those asked hadn’t written a single thing by hand in the previous six months. Of course, you don’t have to write by hand anymore, except perhaps to sign a document, or a dollar bill or something.

But if you’re one of those handwriting-phobic people, don’t move to France. Handwriting skills and handwriting experts — graphologists — are well-respected there. And according to the graphology industry, more than 50 percent of French companies make some use of hand-writing analysis.

Veteran graphologist Catherine Bottiau says studying “the trace of someone’s writing is to study the energy which guides the hands, and the message which consciously and unconsciously wishes to transmit.”

Bottiau says corporate clients tend to bring her in when they’re deciding between job candidates.

Not all French people believe that handwriting should be taken so seriously. University of Grenoble psychologist Laurent Begue says corporate recruiters should stop consulting with graphologists.

“This practice is totally rubbish,” he said. “You cannot use it for professional purposes.”

That’s true, up to a point says Phillip Hensher, the author of the book about handwriting. Hensher concedes there’s an abundance of overly simplistic analysis, especially of notorious historical figures.

“Hitler is a great favorite of graphologists over the decades, some of whom make startlingly stupid observations about him,” Hensher said. “My favorite was the one who said there was great significance in the fact that his writing slanted to the right.”

But Hensher sticks to the belief that handwriting is personal, which means two things. First, the script reveals things about the writer. Second — and because of that — handwriting is the best medium for intimate communication.

Hensher recently picked up an old magazine that he’d had for decades. Out of it fell a hand-written note that his sister had written for him when, as a 15-year-old, he’d been hospitalized.

“It was a completely unremarkable note saying, ‘I saw that you fell asleep, hope you feel better and I’ll be back later today. Love, Kate’" he recalled. “That was from 32 years ago. It was absolutely full of her personality. I saw it, and I knew immediately who left it for me. If she’d sent me a text message, would I still have it after 32 years? Would I still have that connection to my past, to our past? To our relationship?”

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