The problem with effortless communication

A pen pal in England sent me a print article from a magazine entitled: “The lost art of letter writing. Why handwritten letters are enjoying a renaissance.”  It highlighted how COVID-19 has gotten some people back to sending messages by postal mail, and while digital and postal communication can co-exist, sometimes a letter is better! The article mentions the various tangible and personal aspects of postal letter writing that set it apart.

One point in the article that I’d not considered in such a direct way before was: connecting with people now-a-days is effortless. For example, you just click “like” on someone’s social media post or Instagram photo. And while a “like” can be valid and say “I see you” to someone, it requires very little of the person who clicked like. It is also impersonal, especially if that is the only way you respond to the news or photo that they shared.

The word effortless. Do we really feel cared for when the only way someone communicates with us is effortless? I’ve read articles about how there is a loneliness epidemic (not related to COVID lock downs, but before COVID too) despite all the so-called communication taking place with cell phones and over the internet. Many have likely not thought about why they feel lonely despite communicating so much, and I think it is the lack of effort and lack of a personal touch in relationships.

Someone quoted in the article says that when she moved away she wanted to keep in touch with friends in a more detailed and personal way. She wanted her friends to know how much they meant to her, and taking the time and effort to write postal letters would demonstrate that. Note: the time and effort. Giving someone “the gift” of your time and effort sends “a message” that you matter to them.

Of course, a postal letter is not the only way to be more personal and indicate that you genuinely care about someone. It is possible to make online or digital communication more personal. Instead of just clicking “like” how about…sending a private message, leaving a thoughtful comment, etc. This is at least more personal and takes a little more of your thought and time. Take it a step further and postal mail them a card, or make a phone call, in response to special news that they shared on social media.

There is a saying that “it is the thought that counts” but if your communication methods – of whatever type – require little thought from you and only a brainless click? Well, there is no thought to count!

Do you like the IDEA of letter writing but perhaps not actually doing so?

A fairly common complaint I observe is that someone agrees to begin a pen pal friendship, but then never actually writes! One individual sent the first letter but never gets a reply. On occasion, perhaps the receiver realized they did not “connect” with or have enough in common with the writer, but I think that is the case only occasionally. More often than not, I think the problem is…

Someone liked the IDEA of letter writing more than actually doing so.

Someone liked the IDEA of finding letters in their mailbox, but didn’t quite consider the effort or needed commitment to find such letters in the mailbox.

It takes time and effort to write a letter. You must sit down with a pen and paper, do a little thinking and contemplating, decide what to write, and then actually begin writing. It involves quieting yourself and focusing, in a world that so often has us distracted and busy. And to form a friendship by mail it takes commitment and dedication, that is, continuing to write in the future even if life circumstances change.

Related to this, is knowing your “pen pal limit” – How many pen pals can you write and be able to keep up, answering with a quality letter in a reasonable time frame? This will vary from person to person. My personal pen pal limit has typically been 15-20, but yours could be much less or more.

How much free time do you have? How much energy do you have? How much do you really like writing?

How much do you enjoy associated things like stationery, note cards, etc? Some of us just love stationery and related hobbies like paper crafts.

These are all important things to consider. Realistically, you may only want 1 or 2 pen pals, while someone else can handle 15-20.

If you are new to pen pals, start slow. Add 1 or 2 new pen pals at a time. If you are keeping up, add 1 or 2 more. Etc. Eventually you’ll realize you have reached your limit.

Writing pen pals has made a comeback in recent years, but before jumping in make sure you like more than the IDEA of it, but have considered the time and effort involved as well.

Letter writing…quality vs quantity

I’m a life-long pen pal, and certain pen pals say they want “long letter” pals. This does not (usually) mean the person wants to exchange 10 page letters, but that they are not interested in brief letters that only contain superficial thoughts about the weather. They want letters with more effort and depth, that are more than “I did this and I did that” but also share thoughts/ideas, and interact with the letter received.

However, it is not necessarily the length of a letter that makes it worthwhile. Over the years, I’ve received a variety of letters. I’ve gotten letters that were:

very long but Iow quality
brief letters that were high quality.

How so?

For example, very long letters that were nothing but monologue – “I did this and I did that” with no dialogue whatsoever. These letters can read more like a diary entry, a record of what someone has done, and lack a personal touch. Even after receiving such letters for a while, the person remains a stranger to me. I know what they have done, but not who they are.

And then there are letters much briefer by comparison, but are a blend of personal news, responding to the letter received with thoughts or questions, and sharing personal feelings or ideas about something in life. After receiving such letters for a while, I feel like I am really getting to know this person. In other words, a friendship is developing! I have a sense of who they are as a person.

So…perhaps the point is to not get hung up on the length of a letter, but to keep quality in mind as well.  I’d rather receive 3 page personal letters where a friendship is growing, than 10 page letters where the person remains a stranger.




Pen Pal 101

*This post is a bit long but perhaps scan down it, to see what interests you. There are brief thoughts and links about questions related to letter writing and pen pals.*

Recently I joined a pen pal group on social media, and observing is interesting! Many of those posting are only looking for a pen pal because they are stuck at home due to COVID-19. I wonder if their interest will remain after this is over? Also, it is amusing how little some know about the postal system, as they ask really rudimentary questions about postage. Wow, someone does not know that? I am not making fun, but just amused, since I’ve routinely used the post for 35 years.

Some questions are understandable, and there have been some good ones about letter writing. What do I write in a first letter? How long should a letter be? How often do I write? How many pen pals should I have? Etc. It is great to see people being re-introduced to the idea of letter writing.

I saw an article that said people are talking on the phone more during COVID-19, wanting to hear the voice of others.

In the past I’ve read about increased loneliness in modern times, despite the ease of communicating by text, e-mail, and social media. Many of these modern methods lack a personal touch, and people can still feel isolated despite all the “communicating” taking place. There is indeed something more personal about communicating via a tangible handwritten letter, or hearing someone’s voice on the phone, or getting together in person for coffee.

But regarding some of those basic questions about letter writing, here are brief answers or links to past posts on Postman’s Treasure:

Writing the first letter to a potential new pen friend. A first letter will be lopsided towards you, as you introduce yourself, yet even a first letter can contain dialogue. Also, you are introducing yourself, not sharing your autobiography! haha. Just try to write enough that they get a general idea about who you are.

A letter should be a dialogue, not a monologue. In this post, I share quotes from pen pal ads, where the pen pals express their desire for conversational letters.

♦  How long should a letter be? It is common in the pen pal world for pals to say they want “long letter” pen pals. This does not (usually) mean the person wants to exchange 10 page letters, but rather that they are not interested in overly brief letters that only contain thoughts about the weather. They want letters with more effort than that, more sharing, more depth, etc.

♦ How often should I write? Generally, among pen pals, it is one-for-one. You mail a letter, and then wait for a reply before writing again. Most pen pals prefer regular correspondence. I prefer pen pals that can reply to my letter within 4-6 weeks. I’ve had a couple blog posts related to this:

When you stop hearing from a pen friend. What if you send your letter and receive no reply, even after patiently waiting a while? I encourage you to check in with your pen pal! Maybe a letter got lost, maybe your pen pal’s life has taken a turn for the worse, etc. A friend should…wonder, care, reach out. But with the reasonable expectation that sometimes a pen pal just stops writing and you never learn why.

♦ In regards to the length of time between letters: Where has all our time gone…for letter writing? As a pen pal for 35 years, I’ve noticed a change in the last 10 years or so, even among life-long pen pal enthusiasts. It seems harder to have pen pals that write regularly and consistently. Years ago, most would reply within 2-4 weeks, but now it seems stretched longer and longer, and some only write 2 or 3 times a year.

If you have written a pen pal for years, have an established friendship, and then their life changes, and they can only write a couple times a year? That is different, and I am glad they still keep in touch. But when you are trying to establish a NEW pen pal friendship, letters need to be regular and consistent for a time! It is hard to get to know someone when there is 6 months between letters! You will stay strangers otherwise.

♦ Finally, how many pen pals should you write? That will vary. Find your personal pen pal limit. How many people can you write and still have time to write a quality letter and write back in a reasonable time frame? Start with 1 or 2, and slowly add more. This is about friendship, not bulk mailing. My personal pen pal limit has typically been about 15 – 20 over the years, but your limit could be much lower or higher!

Of course, these are general guidelines, or what is typical among most pen pals. Certainly, some pen pal relationships can be different and not follow the norm!

You may write brief letters and focus on “artsy” correspondence primarily about your shared rubber stamping hobby. You may send weekly brief notes, instead of  long letters every few weeks.  As long as you and your pen friend are on the same page in regards to expectations… Happy writing!


Would your letter be a ridiculous conversation?

I’ve written a number of posts about letters being a dialogue, not a monologue, and that the pen pal hobby should not just be about “getting mail” but forming friendships.

Here is a simple idea to help you think about what constitutes a “quality” letter:

Think about getting together for coffee with a friend locally. Would you… sit down, say hello, then immediately begin talking non-stop, telling them your news, then abruptly stop, say goodbye, get up, and walk out of the coffee shop?

Of course not!! Right?! That wasn’t even a conversation.

So why would you write a letter in that way?

As you write a letter, think of it as having coffee with a friend. There should be some “back and forth” or dialogue as you write the letter. You share some of your news, then make comments about something they wrote about in their letter to you, back to something in your life, then answer or ask questions, etc. The format does not have to be exactly that, but it is an example.

Try to let the letter flow naturally, like a conversation at the coffee shop.

I may share some of the same things with each pen pal, but each letter develops a bit differently. Just like conversations will play out differently with different local friends, even when you discuss similar things with each one.

So…step back and look at your letters. Would your letters be a ridiculous conversation?

List of pen pal and letter writing resources

Letter Writers Alliance is closing down after all these years. I was never a member, and my only involvement was checking in to their blog on occasion. Yet, I will miss them! Their site remains up for now, and the last post has a great list of pen pal and letter writing resources. See it HERE while it remains up. A partial screen shot:

Letter writing tips. Are you getting bored and boring your pen pals too?

As an active pen pal for 35 years, I’ve heard a certain letter-writing “complaint” a few times. Individuals who are getting tired of the pen pal hobby because it has become boring, writing the same thing over and over again to everyone. “I did this and I did that.” — What’s the point? Well, yes, writing the same thing over and over again to every pen pal would indeed become rather boring and pointless! There is no point.

Writing letters should be about forming a friendship, not just about getting mail. I think  some pen pals have forgotten about the friendship part. It seems that generally in our society, not just with the pen pal hobby, friendship has become a lost art. I’ve had related posts before, but this time I wanted to share some letter writing ideas so that you don’t end up writing the same thing over and over again.

⇒ While I do share my life news with my pen pals, I rarely write the same thing in the same way to each and every one! Know your pen pals. Each pen pal is a unique individual. There are things you share in common with them, and things that you do not. There are ways you are the same, and ways you are different. Keep this in mind as you write a letter!

I may write a long and detailed description about something to one pen pal, but reduce it to a 2-sentence summary to another pen pal. I know that one will find it interesting, and the other will find it boring. There are “areas” of my life that I share frequently with certain pen pals, but with other pen pals I only bring these areas up on occasion.

⇒ If your letters have become mostly about life news, bring something else up! Ask a question, and share your answer too. This is limitless, really! A few ideas…How would your pen pal describe their personality type? If they were given enough money to travel anywhere, where would they go? If married, how did they meet their spouse? When is a time they remember laughing their head off? What are some things in life for which they are thankful or grateful? Ask them about some of their “favorites” such as favorite movie, book, food, color, etc. Do they have any pet-peeves?

⇒ Finally, as I have often emphasized, a letter should be more than sharing your news. Respond to their letter. A letter should be a dialogue, not a monologue. Maybe you have a question about something they wrote about. Maybe you related to a problem they shared, and you can commiserate a bit. Maybe you really enjoyed hearing about their vacation, and you can simply let them know it. Etc.

I hope that gives you some ideas for keeping your letters varied and interesting, developing a friendship, and not being like a…robot…mechanically writing the same thing over and over to every pen pal!

When you stop hearing from a pen friend…

Many posts could be written about friendship, and the various virtues that make for a good friendship, and this includes friendship by pen. Have you ever stopped hearing from a long-term pen friend that always responded within a reasonable time frame?  Most pen pals tend to write “one for one” – meaning that your letters are an even exchange. You write a letter, then wait to get a letter back before writing again. So what if you send your letter, and it is…crickets?

[For anyone international reading this…crickets? This is US slang, meaning absolute silence, no communication.]

If this is a new pen pal, it is possible that they just were not “connecting” with you and no longer wish to correspond. Don’t take it personally.

However, what if you have an established pen friendship, and suddenly there is no reply, and you patiently wait for a while? Patience is a virtue! All of us can get busy and get behind on our mail.

But after patiently waiting, still nothing. Would you do anything? I’d say a good friend should notice and care! What has happened? Are they okay? Drop them a friendly note in the mail, let them know you miss their letters, and hope all is well.

While it is unusual, letters can get lost in the mail. (Well, I should say that the commonness of this varies by country. Many nations have reliable post, but there are nations with rather unreliable mail.)  I’ve been a pen pal for 35 years, and had 5 or 6 “lost mail” scenarios. It would be a shame for a pen friendship to end because a piece of mail got lost, both of you just waiting, doing nothing. Do something! Reach out. A friend should care. Drop them a friendly note to check on them.

I find most pen pals to be fairly organized. They have some type of system for keeping track of their pen pal’s addresses and other details. But there is the occasional unorganized pen pal! I once stopped hearing from a pen pal, dropped a friendly note in the mail, and received a reply. This pen pal had been unable to reply to my previous letter because my address label got torn off the envelope in the post – and she had no record of my address! I was surprised. But, again, what a shame for a pen friendship to end for such a reason.

Maybe your pen pal suddenly had a series of untoward events in their life, and if so, they should be encouraged by your friendly note – knowing that you noticed their absence and cared enough to reach out.

Sometimes we can know ahead of time that our life will be busier for a while. Let your pen pals know that your letters will be less frequent. I remember a pen pal writing to tell me that she had a very heavy class load for the next 2 semesters, and would not be able to reply as quickly. This was good to know! And I could encourage her in her studies. Friends should cheer each other on, and support them in their life endeavors.

In closing, a fairly common thing with the pen pal hobby is that pen pals come and go. People “try” the hobby for a time, and lose interest. You can’t control this. It happens. But at least do what you can. If you stop hearing from a pen pal, reach out with a friendly note, so that a correspondence does not end for a reason like lost mail or a lost address!

Think of a letter as a visit with a friend over coffee!

I once had a post entitled: Are you writing a friend, or only writing a letter? There is a difference! Are you just dashing off letters because you like to get mail -or- are you trying to develop a friendship? I’ve always considered my pen pals to be friends that I want to get to know.

Related to this, I also had a post emphasizing that letters should be a dialogue, not a monologue. Someone shared: “I want conversational letters. Not looking for people who only write about themselves and ignore everything I write.” In other words, friendship should be a two-way street, where two people are mutually interested in one another.

In the last several years I’ve encountered a new (but related) “problem” with pen pals. Pen pals who may write dialogue letters, but seem to remember nothing from previous letters! It is almost like each letter you write them is the first letter they have received from you!  It has been a pattern with certain pen pals.

I’ll offer one example, so you know what I mean. I wrote a pen pal telling her all about a vacation I took to another country. She replied. In my letter back to her I enclosed a postcard from the country I visited, as I forgot to send it before. She replied, something like “Wow! I did not know you visited this place. Please tell me about your vacation!” – Uh, I already did in my previous letter!!

We can all have slips of the memory. None of us can remember everything a pen pal has shared with us in previous letters. But that is NOT what I am talking about, rather I am talking about a pattern – it happens repeatedly.

Has the hustle and bustle of modern life invaded the pen pal hobby? Postal mail is supposed to “slow you down” – Picking up a pen and writing a letter is different than sending a text message or making a phone call. At least it should be!

There are also studies/research that indicate that the internet is affecting our reading abilities. Our brains become so accustomed to skim reading short articles on the internet, that we are losing our ability to read deeply. Our minds jump from thing to thing, rather being able to focus on one thing. Maybe this is part of the problem too? Some pen pals are not slowing down, only skim read their letters, and dash off replies.

Before I lose you (this article gets long for internet reading!) here are some ideas for being a better pen friend. How can you remember more of what your pen pals have shared with you in the past? How can you be a better friend?

♥ Read each letter more than once. I read a letter when I first receive it. However, I can rarely reply immediately. When I later go to answer the letter, I read it again. And…

♥ Take time to think about the letter. What do you relate to? What do you have a question about? I am a practicing Christian, and if my pen pal is having a struggle or problem, I may take a moment to pray for them. Commiserate. The point here is to slow down!

You are more likely to remember things when you take time, rather than being in a rush.

Think of a letter as a visit with a friend over coffee! 

♥ Some pen pals utilize pen pal “info cards” to be more organized with their pen friends. I use 3 x 5 cards, but others use sheets of paper. In case you are not familiar with this, you ask your pen pals to fill out an “info card/sheet” for you. On it, you have basic categories of info such as: name, address, birthday, children, pets, hobbies, collections, favorite color, etc. This gives you a “snapshot” of your pen pal – essential things about them to remember.

This can help you in the future! If you forget (“Uh…does Julie have 3 cats or is that Mary?”) – you can review your info card.  I also “update” my cards myself when a pen pal tells me something new that I want to be sure to remember. Maybe a dear pet died, a new grandchild is born, or they have gotten involved in a new hobby.

None of us has a perfect memory, and my “info cards” help me be a better pen friend.

This post grows long, so I will bring it to a close. Slow down, and consider how you can be a better friend.