In a world full of ever-evolving digital technology and instant communication, the idea of pen pals may seem like an outdated concept of the past. However, pen pals are making a comeback as a great way of discovering the world beyond social media and Netflix, with a range of benefits including improving mental health and wellbeing, connecting with people far and wide, and gaining knowledge of different cultures, languages, and even travel opportunities.
For many ‘90s kids, pen pals were friends met at camp or other students they were set up with through school pen pal programs. They’re usually strangers who write to each other regularly via postal mail, with their relationship based mainly on the exchange of letters – many pen pals have never met in real life.
Although social media has made it incredibly quick and easy to communicate with people, the main point of pen pals is not to chat in instant time, but rather, to slow down and take it back to the days before the internet was such a popular form of connecting with people.
You may think that pen pals don’t have a place in our current digital age; why write letters to people when you could simply text them or message them online? But there are many reasons to become a pen pal, with plenty of potential benefits.
So why become a pen pal? Well, for one, it’s a pandemic – there has never been a better time to have a pen pal! With many places in lockdown or closed thanks to COVID-19 measures, a lot of us are struggling to find things to do at home. Why not start writing letters? Not only does it pass the time and connect you to people while missing our usual connections over dinner dates and get-togethers; it can also be therapeutic.
Writing is known to help reduce stress levels, especially by writing about emotions specifically and giving yourself an outlet rather than bottling them up. Sitting down with a pen and paper (or digital notepad and keyboard) and jotting your thoughts down can be grounding and help alleviate stress during these highly stressful, unprecedented COVID-19 times. Coronavirus has caused mental health and wellbeing to worsen, with an increase in the proportion of people reporting depressive symptoms and the proportion of adults reporting a level of psychological distress increasing by 13.5% in April 2020 according to Public Health England.
Many studies highlight the benefits of journaling for mental health, with mental health charities sharing case studies of how writing helps normalize feelings and allows for processing them in different ways. Although writing can be good for you personally, it can also improve someone else’s mood - think about that bit of delight you get when receiving a letter or note from someone you know; it has an immediately uplifting effect.
This is especially true for people being away from home during these times; whether they are another continent away or just a short drive, a letter lets them know you’re thinking about them and that someone cares. It helps reduce those feelings of isolation and loneliness by sending them a personal touch, a more intimate and meaningful gesture than the texts and online messages we’re used to receiving.
It all goes full circle; doing something nice for someone that you know will make them happy makes you happy too.
In a time when we are more connected digitally than ever before, we are also feeling more distanced and lonelier than ever. In the UK alone, more than 9 million people say they always or often feel lonely. And although receiving a letter doesn’t exactly compare to a face-to-face meeting, a little paper hug can go much farther than a standard text or email.
Pen pals allow you to connect with someone without the unconscious bias of seeing their social media profiles/online presence. On the other hand, you can maintain your own privacy by only sharing the information you want to share.
Another reason to use letters instead of online messages is simply that not everybody wants to be contacted online. Sure, you could randomly find people on Facebook or Instagram and drop them a line. That does not mean they will respond, and even if they do, it just is not the same as receiving a letter through the post. And the older generation often prefers paper to screen
Alternatively, you could become a pen pal with an old friend you have lost touch with, or one that has moved away. Expats especially love to receive mail from home/loved ones. Receiving letters can feel like receiving gifts; they are more special than the easily accessible text messages we normally use to communicate.
To get mail of this sort, you must also send mail. If you are looking for a good excuse to get a letter from someone, make the first step and write them one!
Developing a friendship this way can create new opportunities while traveling. You could have a pen pal in Peru then travel there, meet your friend, and experience life there as a local. Without a pen pal connection, you may not get the experience you could by having a pen pal to guide you and show you a different side of their home than you would see by just going on your own vacation.
Writing to someone from a different place can promote cross-cultural learning as well, leading to more cultural intelligence and sensitivity. It can make you more aware and more curious about the world outside of your own, leading to new interests and opportunities.
There’s a new phenomenon happening with children now known as ‘character amnesia’, thanks to the increased use of technology to communicate and lack of need for writing anything by hand – children can’t remember how to create letters. Bringing back pen pals could help brain development and cognition, helping kids hone their fine motor skills and learn to express and generate ideas by devoting time to handwriting letters. You could even encourage them to use handwriting to text apps on touchscreen phones, tablets, and laptops to translate handwriting into digital letter forms and send that digital letter to pen pals via online mail systems such as PostSeal.
Writing letters is more than just a way to communicate. Studies show that writing increases neural activity and activates brain regions involved with thought, language, and short-term memory: good cognitive exercise for not only children but the aging population too.
Additionally, you could learn a new language by speaking with native speakers and exchanging culture. Writing letters can improve reading, writing and comprehension not just in your own language, but in a language you’re trying to learn as well. Creating letters takes more time and thought than a post on social media which will disappear within seconds as feeds update – you aren’t going to bore your pen pal by using an entire page to describe your breakfast. Because of this, you spend more time editing and sculpting a message with meaning, thus practicing your writing skills and letting your creativity flow.
You can also forge cross-generational bonds with pen pals to bridge the gap between generations. People from different generations have a lot to share and learn from each other; younger people can learn more about the lives of older people and their culture and heritage and vice versa.
Many retirement communities have started pen pal programs to keep residents connected to the community and combat loneliness. Some older people also like having pen pals because they have a hearing impairment and prefer to write to people rather than talk to them in person.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted for many people what it’s like to be isolated; a feeling many older people might have been dealing with for years, long before Covid-19 hit. Becoming a pen pal with them could help both parties feel less isolated and prevent loneliness, which helps combat the negative impact loneliness has on physical health too – individuals with chronic loneliness are more prone to depression and have an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Arts in Care Homes have created a postal project during the current coronavirus situation called Only Connect to link up care homes and combat isolation. Hales Care Home Care has also launched an appeal to get people to become pen pals with their service users. So try contacting a local care home to see if you could become a pen pal and possibly brighten someone’s day there – it could be great for the both of you!
If you have ever tried learning a new language, you probably know the feeling of shy, self-consciousness you get when trying to speak that new language with native speakers. Especially if you know that person or are trying to impress someone but are too scared to do so yet. Pen pals are great for helping you learn a new language without being embarrassed by trying it with a native speaker you know. Letters are more non-judgmental, thanks to not being able to see the recipient’s immediate reaction.
In fact, a lot of people join pen pal sites simply to learn a new language. It will of course be quicker to learn a new language by having an online pen pal via email or instant messaging, but it would not have that traditional feel that snail mail gives you.
Despite technology such as Skype and other online methods of learning and communicating being available to us, pen pals with the traditional form of sending letters are much less intimidating than people you may know.
Crafting a letter is an art form in itself which allows you to practice your writing skills in your non-native language.
Clearly, pen pals are still popular today with sites like Interpals.net boasting more than 5 million members and over 2.8 million pen pals from every country on the planet on PenPal World.
Like any first introduction in real life, the first letter to a pen pal can be a bit awkward. How do you introduce yourself? What do you want to say? How do you want to come across?
First, you should try to pair up with someone with at least one similar interest. From there, you simply ask them about their lives. Start with basics: name, occupation, interests/hobbies, anything you feel like sharing or asking about them. It might also be interesting to hear about their part of the world, especially during coronavirus; are they in lockdown? How have they been handling the pandemic? Are they working from home?
The best part of being a pen pal with someone you don’t know is just that – you don’t know each other. You don’t have to worry about being judged or what that person will think of you. You just be yourself and hope you two hit it off. If not, what have you lost? But if you do, you might end up with a new best friend.
The best way to connect with people via letters without leaving your home is to take advantage of the fully online service, PostSeal. If you don’t type the letter up and prefer to write it on paper, take a picture of your handwritten letter or scan it into your computer, then mail it online via PostSeal. Not only is this method more convenient, but it is safer during these pandemic times as it saves you a trip to the post office or mailbox, or the shop to collect your supplies, envelopes, and stamps.
Do yourself a favour; help improve your own and someone else’s mental and physical health, your friendships near or far, your native or non-native language skills, and/or new cross-culture or cross-generational bonds. Use PostSeal to send a letter online to your pen pal!
Published on 6/29/2021
Last modified on 6/30/2021