Does it surprise you when I tell you that my Amish friends are a little harder than my non-Amish friends to get ahold of?
Not terribly so, but if I want to contact someone in Lancaster County for instance, it usually involves leaving a message on the answering machine on the phones that each of them have at their respective homes.
Well, not in the homes, exactly—either tucked away somewhere in the barn, or in a phone shanty, those little wooden booths you see set off to the side of the property.
Sometimes you get lucky, and someone’s at the phone. But usually you wait for the return call.
To state the obvious, communication is important to the Amish—be it with family, friends and fellow church members, business associates or customers.
Despite this, Amish try to stave off the creep of technology, hence those who have phones (and not all Amish have them) keeping them in a separate building, and for the most part out of the home.
While the phone is common, Amish rely on other methods of communication which have largely fallen by the wayside, or are in the process of doing so, in mainstream culture.
Here are three ways which Amish communicate which we could call “old-fashioned.”
1.) A Shared Phone Line – First, another note on the phone. While the friends I mentioned above each have their own line, in many communities, phone lines are shared.
A phone shanty may be used by multiple households, with the billing being sorted out at the end of the month. This may mean you have to wait on someone finishing up a call.
It also recalls the early-1900s-era phone lines, which were termed “party lines” and were split among a half-dozen or more households.
One difference: those let anyone who picked up their phone to listen in on others’ conversations, while the Amish line is like any other with a single receiver and an assurance of privacy.
2.) Circle Letters – When was the last time you wrote a letter? The practice is alive and thriving with the Amish. That’s not to say all Amish write letters—some are simply not writers.
But quite a few are. And the “circle letter”, linking those with common interests or background, is one way they leverage that letter-writing work to be appreciated by multiple readers.
A circle letter group may consist of teachers or surgery patients or adoptive parents or people born in the same month, or really any common theme linking the writers.
The circle letter grows as it is sent from one address to another on the list. Each recipient writes their letter and attaches it to the batch (removing their previously-written letter to keep the size manageable).
It’s then sent along to the next name on the list, who gets to enjoy reading all the others’ updates before adding their own.
It’s anything but instant, but a nice way to exchange information and form bonds with people whom you may never meet in person (although Amish do have “reunions”—get-togethers where they actually do meet these sometimes far-flung acquaintances in person).
3.) Correspondence Papers – You may have heard of these papers, popular among the Amish – The Sugarcreek Budget, Die Botschaft, and The Diary being three of the best-known.
The main attraction of these widely-read weekly or monthly publications are the hundreds of letters written by “scribes.”
A scribe (usually female) will regularly write in with reports on goings-on in the church and community. You may get reports on crops, injuries, who visited at church the previous Sunday, or whatever else might have happened between letters.
In this way you can keep up with the latest in communities which interest you—those you may have visited, or where your children or other relatives or friends live. Since Amish move quite a bit, it’s not unusual to know many people in other states.
The correspondence paper combines one old-fashioned thing—letter-writing, again—and one thing that feels like it’s getting to be that way—the dead-tree newspaper. It mimics an online message board where updates are “posted” for all readers to see.
Like the other forms of communication on this list, it just requires a little of that seemingly scarce virtue—patience.
Erik Wesner writes about the Amish in print and online. His first book, Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive was based on 60 interviews Erik conducted with Amish business owners, as well as his own experiences living and working in Amish communities from Pennsylvania to Iowa. He has contributed to Amish-themed articles featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and other print media. He also has served as a consultant for numerous authors of Amish fiction and non-fiction and writes the Amish America blog. His upcoming book is called 50 Fascinating Amish Facts.
Purchase Erik’s book here.
Sign up here to be the first to get exclusive news delivered to your inbox monthly. New books, cover reveals, coupon codes, first-look excerpts and much more.