The Benefits of Snail Mail

When I was in elementary school, I had a penpal. It didn’t last for very long, but I remember the feeling of excitement that would take over when I received her letter in the mail; it was like Christmas morning. 

While pen and paper were the main form of long distance communication for over one thousand years, penpalling officially began in the 1930s. Penpalling is the act of writing letters to someone, usually that you’ve never met, and most often someone that lives in a different country. Having a pen pal offers so many benefits including making new friends and connections, introducing you to travel opportunities, and changing your perspective. Don’t miss out on an opportunity that has the potential to change your life. 

“People should have pen pals because they are an outlet for a friendship which can bridge two cultures and ways of life,” said Carly Anderson (‘21). Throughout the years, Anderson has had multiple penpals, one of which she still keeps in touch with. “My lasting penpal I have is from Vallentuna, Sweden,” said Anderson. 

Eight years ago, Anderson met Elvira Hedström at a hotel resort in Hawai’i. The two have been penpalling ever since. “My favorite part of having a penpal is getting to know someone from a different country and learn about their experiences as they grow up, how they learn English and experience what I have experienced but in different ways. I also love having a friend who I can talk to through a different medium than most friends.”

You’d think that with this new age of technology, penpalling would be a dying art. However it’s quite the opposite. With the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been searching for ways to connect with others and occupy their time, and penpalling satisfies both. Global Penfriends, a website that connects people of all ages across the world to help them find a pen pal, currently has over 70,000 users, and there are facebook groups with over 30,000 people. An article by Brittany Wong for Huffpost, argues that “There’s Never Been a Better Time to Have a Pen Pal.” 

Recently, I started penpalling with a girl in England. I’m not kidding when I say I spent weeks preparing my first letter to be sent. I went all out and made sure that no detail went overlooked. It’s important to me to note that everything, from the color of the ink I used to write the letter to the guitar pick I included in the “goodie bag,” was color coordinated. 

The reason I put so much effort into my letter is because penpalling is more than just sending a letter nowadays, it’s become an art form. While there’s no rules as to how you should go about penpalling, and you can certainly send a letter with nothing else to it, penpalling has become about more than writing a letter. People include songs they’ve been listening to, Q&A’s, art pieces they’ve made, and even gifts for the other person such as stationary and stickers, all wrapped up in a beautifully orchestrated package. 

Creating something like this takes a lot of time. Why spend so much time and effort into making something so detailed when you could just send a text, you may ask? Think about how you feel when a package arrives in the mail. You get pretty excited, right? It doesn’t matter even what it is for you to get excited and feel special that something has arrived specifically for you. Now imagine that package is from a friend and not only contains a letter detailing what they’ve been up to, but also recommendations of new songs to listen to, books to read, movies to watch, and recipes to try. That feeling is what penpalling is all about. You don’t feel that way when you receive a text message. And besides, you most likely need a break from staring at a screen. Doing something creative is a great way to spend time away from your phone, and writing about our lives is more beneficial than you might have thought.

ORHS Counselor Kim Cassamas said that the benefits of writing down our personal experiences include “staying in touch with where you are at that moment. It gives you a lot of perspective and the assurance that you do grow and learn skills.” If you journal, you’ll know that writing down your emotions can be cathartic. Any expression of emotion is extremely beneficial; penpalling is great because it assures you that someone is willing and interested to listen to what’s going on in your life.

Anderson talked about how penpalling has expanded her worldview and allowed her to express herself. “[Elvira] has given me a lot of insight into a different community as she shares her day to day life with me. Most recently we talked about how each of our countries were handling the coronavirus pandemic, so I learned that they had less restrictions than we did when it came to group gatherings and social health protocols and we both expressed our frustrations with how each of the government systems were handling the pandemic.”

If you have a pen pal that lives in a country where the main language is one that you don’t speak, it’s a great opportunity for you to learn a new language. As a kid, Anderson was able to pick up some Swedish while communicating with Hedström. “I have learned a few words in Swedish because at the beginning of our penpalling she knew limited English so she would write the letter in Swedish, and her mom would Google translate it for me. I would read through the translation in addition to the Swedish letter trying to see what I could make out from what she had written.”

Along with potentially helping you learn languages, penpalling gives you a great opportunity to practice your writing skills. “I remember before I would send my letter to Elvira, I would go over the grammar and spelling with my parents so that they would help me catch any mistakes I had so it wouldn’t be confusing for her as she tried to read it as it was her second language,” said Anderson. 

If you’re nit picky or care about the quality of your work, penpalling can be very time consuming. And depending on how far away your pen pal lives, the wait for a letter in return may take weeks. “One of the drawbacks to having a traditional penpal is the waiting for the letter in return, but that is part of the experience of having a penpal as well,” said Anderson. “I can’t think of any other reasons why having a penpal would be a bad experience to have.”

Penpalling can bring a lot of joy into your life, and make you feel less alone. It expands your worldview and gives you something to look forward to. If you’re interested in finding a penpal but don’t know where to look, check out