Penpalling in 2021

[Versione italiana]

Yes, in this article we are going to talk about an activity that many people born after 2000 probably don’t even know about: penpalling.

For those who don’t know what this means, penpalling means having a pen pal, a friend somewhere far away from you with whom you write letters. Did I say letters? Yes, those things you write with pen and paper, you fold and put into an envelope with a stamp and then throw in a mailbox. Letters.

It’s a very unusual thing to do in 2021, when we have all sorts of instant and free communication media, but I can tell you that there is an entire underworld of people who are tired of the “here-and-now” communication of the XXI century and still like to exchange letters to share thoughts and daily life stories.

But first: how did I end up in the penpalling world?

Some time ago I wrote an article about how I was tired of social media. You may have read it or maybe not, I don’t care. Anyway, I think the whole process started when I realized I had no time to do anything because of my job. Not only I could not spend much time taking care of cool Instagram posts in the evening, but at some point I wasn’t even able to look at my phone during breaks at work. This happened because my job is a very “intellectually demanding” one, where I need to stay focused as long as possible to understand and solve problems, and getting distracted by looking at the phone and scrolling the Facebook or Instagram feed, or even getting into a chat on Whatsapp with someone was detrimental for my daily task at work, even if I limited this during breaks. Whether I wanted it or not, I got completely detached from my phone, which I basically pick up during the day only to answer to my mom and tell her that I’m alive.

This detachment made me realize how superficial the communication through social media is and how useless it is to post stuff in our own “shop window” to show other people what we’re doing. But there’s more: even the instant messaging via Whatsapp or Telegram loses its meaning when it comes about keeping friendships alive. Texting is something that we always do “on the go”, we never sit down and dedicate an hour or so to texting with someone via Whatsapp, because most probably that someone is doing something else and will answer when they have time. And if they read the text and don’t answer immediately, we may even get pissed and wonder if something’s wrong. With some of my contacts I have to wait purposely to read the message until I know I have time and will to answer, because I know that if I read the message and answer later (because maybe in that moment I could only type “Yes” or “No”, while I would like to give a proper answer), they will be pissed the whole time because I read the messages and do not answer right away. This can only make the whole relationship more stressful.

The result is that we are always in a hurry in answering to texts and we also feel the need to keep everything short, otherwise we are the annoying ones who type novels instead of texts. There is no really meaningful conversation that can happen there, because everything is reduced to the bare minimum.

Of course, thank God Whatsapp and Telegram exist, otherwise I could not tell my husband my last-minute craving for beer or chips while he’s on the way to the supermarket. What I am talking about is not the daily communication with someone, that needs to happen fast and instantly, but the more deep conversation and sharing of thoughts with someone with whom you cannot speak in person or via a phone call.

That’s how I ended up asking myself if anyone is still penpalling in 2021. At first I just wondered if anyone was “digitally” penpalling, that is, via email. So I started searching for communities and websites around this topic and the world of modern penpalling opened its doors to me.

I found out that people are still doing it and even better, people who do it definitely prefer the pen-and-paper style of penpalling rather than email. But there is also quite a number of people doing it via emails.

Most of the people I have encountered in this world are penpalling since ages, but I have read somewhere that many other people started to become interested into penpalling after some months of lockdown, after the first weeks/months of enthusiasm for new hobbies and Instagram story-posting were gone and the related emptiness started to emerge. I think it perfectly makes sense.

Anyway, after I learned that there are still people writing letters and emails, I started to look for a pen pal myself. At first I wanted to find an Italian one because I do not have many occasions to write in my mother tongue. However, I could find only one website offering the possibility to search for penpals in Italy and most of the insertions are from people looking for their soulmates, to say it in a romantic way. I was lucky anyway and found a couple of women of my age specifically looking for “paper” pen pals and I started a correspondence with them.

Soon I started looking for a more international environment and I found out that there are many English-speaking platforms to find a pen pal. There are also apps for this (after all, we’re still in 2021!) but in the end I sticked to one and only website, which I simply find amazing: the Geek Girl Pen Pals. The GGPP is not just a website where you can write down your data and main interests and they will match you with a pen pal with similar interests: it is an entire community of people with similar geek interests and interested in penpalling. If you love fantasy books, movies, tv series, or anime, manga, comics, star wars, gaming, or any kind of crafts, you should definitely take a look at this community (which by the way is also perfectly and wonderfully LGBT+ friendly).

I am still waiting to be matched with my GG pen pal, but meanwhile through their Discord server I found a couple more pen pals with whom I can write in German or in English.

What is so cool about writing letters?

Well, first of all, you can have many pen pals even if you are a very busy person. I work on average 50 hours a week, sometimes close to 60. I get up every morning at 6 to do sports (it’s the only time of the day I have a chance to do it), and after I get home from work – always pretty late – I have only a limited free hour or even less to do other things before I have to go to bed. Often this hour simply flies away by doing household and damn adulting stuff. As I said above, there is no time in all this to be constantly available on Whatsapp.

But a letter? When I receive a letter, I typically read it immediately because I’m curious, but the person who wrote it does not have the expectation that I will write a response here and now. They rather have the expectation that I will think about it, wait until I really have an hour of time to sit at the desk, take my nicest paper, my calligraphy pen (oh yes, I am using a dip pen when writing letters!) and properly write a possibly long answer. They might be disappointed if I send immediately a two-line piece of paper saying “that’s very cool!”.

Therefore, even if I have five people to write letters to, I can – or better, I HAVE TO- wait until the weekend or an evening when I have time to dedicate to this activity. A bit like a hobby.

This is true also for emails, it doesn’t necessarily have to be letters. Of course, writing letters with pen and paper, choosing a nice piece of paper, a cool pen and maybe showing off your lettering skills is definitely fascinating. In any case, whether you write letters or emails, you are free to open up and tell stories or thoughts without time pressure or short length requirements (how many times do we think “are they writing a bible?” whenever someone is typing for ages on Whatsapp?).

And the surprise when you come home after 13 hours of work and you find a nice envelope with a handwritten address on it? Priceless!

It is an experience that I would really recommend to anyone, even in 2021. You may find out that you have a lot more to say than you think. And just as it was when we were “forced” to do it at school, don’t underestimate the value that penpalling can have if you do it in a foreign language: I speak fluent German but I have rarely the occasion to write letters in everyday German (if I write German it is always work- and law-related) and it is a huge challenge for me to write to my German pen pals!


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