Perhaps you’ve been too busy compiling video messages — a pandemic-era trend that, I’m sorry, needs to go away — to consider the humble greeting card lately. If so, you’re late to the game. A quick Etsy search for “coronavirus greeting card” reveals more than 2,000 options, with messages like “Sending Socially Distant Hugs,” “I May Not Be Near But I’m Here,” and “Got You Some Alcohol For Your Birthday,” with an illustrated bottle of hand sanitizer underneath. A spokesperson for Etsy tells Refinery29 the site actually has over 20,000 cards that make some mention of social distancing, masks, coronavirus, or quarantine, and that there was a 1339% increase in searches for COVID-related cards between April and June. While Etsy probably has the largest and most diverse selection, you can also find similar cards at Hallmark, Amazon, Smilebox, RedBubble, Paper & Honey, and other retailers.
On its face, the idea of a coronavirus greeting card might seem kind of bizarre, and even insensitive. Does everything need to be pandemic-themed? Does sending a coronavirus greeting card merely trivialize a disease that’s already killed hundreds of thousands of Americans? Not necessarily. Emily West, an associate professor in the department of communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, tells Refinery29, “People have always been interested in cards that are timely, that reflect the moment that we’re in, such as commenting on or reflecting current politics and popular culture.”
West posits part of the reason for this is that the more specific the card is, the more meaningful and authentic feels. In the Before Times, this might have meant picking out a card with a cat on it for your cat-loving friend, or one with a joke about drinking too much for your party animal pal. These days, we all share one very big, all-encompassing interest: this virus, the minutiae of attempting to prevent its spread, and the myriad ways in which it’s impacting our daily lives. “Timely cards demonstrate that the sender made a special effort to think about and do something for someone in that very moment. That’s why so many people want a specifically ‘captioned’ card for an occasion, so that the recipient will know for sure it was picked out for them with the occasion or moment in mind,” West adds.
While the popularity of greeting cards had dwindled in recent years, evidenced by once-beloved card retailers like Papyrus abruptly shuttering, this is a natural time for them to surge. For one thing, there’s a push to invest in the USPS as it struggles for survival prior to an election where a record number of Americans will depend on it to vote. Cards are an easy way to do that. Jen Diehl, the owner of The Ritzy Rose, an independent boutique that has been selling through Etsy since the site’s inception and offers several cards that reference coronavirus, says a desire to support the Postal Service is something she’s been hearing from her customers more and more. “We’ve been seeing that in our feedback — people comment on the quality of the card, and that they enjoy supporting the USPS. So, win-win,” she says.
And then there’s the fact that thanks to social distancing, we’re all searching for meaningful ways to connect, and yet, with so much tumult in the world, it can be hard to find the right words, much less the energy. Screen fatigue is real and since many of us are spending all day hooked up to Zoom for work and school, those Houseparty cocktail hours and weekly FaceTime chats we relished in March and April have since lost most of their appeal. Plus, how many Cameo greetings can you send to your friends? Once an outmoded social nicety, cards are suddenly a much-needed break from both the screen and the pressures of talking to someone in real-time; a chance to communicate that somehow feels simultaneously heartfelt and low-stakes.
West has done extensive research about greeting cards as a cultural entity — in 2010, she published “A taste for greeting cards: Distinction within a denigrated cultural form,” in the Journal of Consumer Culture, and she’s also written about them in relation to gender — and says that when she began studying mass-market cards in the early aughts, she wanted to understand whether it’s possible for them to ever be a truly authentic means of communication. More broadly, is it possible to commercialize authenticity, or does the very nature of commodification negate that? What she concluded is that, not only can greeting cards be both a commercial artifact and a tool of authentic communication, but that many other things in our lives also occupy that same space. “Consider therapy, sex toys, commercial entertainment, clothing, self-help books — we constantly look to the market to help us navigate daily life, understand and express our emotions, and construct and perform the self,” she explains.
Another thing she found, in talking to card senders, is that cards “approximate what authentic communication means to them.” This is obviously different from person to person, but in a society that often discourages us from talking too much about our emotions, or for people who feel like they’re not good with words, or for situations that simply feel too immense for conversational pleasantries, cards help fill that space. The card thus becomes not just a canvas, but a reason — maybe even an excuse — to open up. And the act of picking out a card, even one with a slightly corny pre-written message inside, can be surprisingly personal. “It [isn’t] that you pay a few dollars and that gets you off the hook in trying to express yourself,” West says. “Rather, as a consumer you have to make the effort in the marketplace to find the right card for the right occasion.”
The best thing cards can give us, though, is permission to laugh. While coronavirus is no joke, it’s hard not to look upon the world right now — a global pandemic, an estimated 30 million Americans on unemployment, disturbing manifestations of climate change occurring across the country, and an incompetent, fascistic reality star in the White House — and not feel that if you can’t laugh, you’re going to cry. A lot. The power of a card that acknowledges this duality, giving both the sender and the receiver the ability to share a small chuckle over the absurdity of, say, a facemasked Santa Clause, can’t be underestimated in this moment. “It's so shocking and confusing and weird and nothing feels normal anymore. And I think in dark times, you kind of have to tap into humor. I think it’s helping us. It’s the kind of thing that brings us all together,” says Diehl.
She also says that she recently read a review that made her smile, from a customer who purchased a 32-pack of cards featuring animals wearing masks and sent them out to all of their friends, who in turn took pictures of the cards hanging on their fridges and sent them to her. “I love it that this person sent 32 cards to everyone, and now it's just all the love is coming back into that person,” Deihl explains. “And that’s what we’re finding. It’s the art of connecting with people in insane times.”