Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Penpal Protocol (otherwise known as PPP, you know me)

I interrupt my usual snarkiness and shenanigans to bring up an issue that I'm curious about:

As we all know, recieving letters is great. It's such a thrill and joy to reach your hand into the mailbox and pull out things addressed to you. You, yes, you! I know it's the highlight of my day.

Yes, that IS a mailbox shaped like a shark! And no, sadly, that is not my mailbox.

However, what happens when you exchange letters with someone that you don't click with? I'm sure we've all experienced it. It's not just a matter of having nothing in common with your penpal because sometimes it's great to write someone who has completely different interests. For example, I'm sure we've all exchanged letters with people who seemed more concerned with the quantity of their incoming and outgoing mail than the quality of their responses. My favourite penpals and letters are the ones that read like messages from friends. I love letters just full of personality! However, the reality is that just like in real life, we're not going to get along with everyone we exchange letters with.

So what do you do if you just don't click as penpals with someone? Do you "suck it up" and simply continue writing? Do you decide to stop writing? What is the protocol for ending a pen friendship? Do you write a letter explaining your decision or just let the responses peter out? Personally, I wouldn't be comfortable just stopping a penpal relationship without some explanation (it never feels good to be on the waiting end of a letter that will never come...), but how would you approach the subject? What would you say?

Also, what would you do if you hadn't heard from a penpal in a few months? Would you assume that they just decided to stop writing? Or would you send another letter just in case a letter went missing somewhere on the way? Would you fly to their city and wave at them from his/her kitchen window? (Kidding! That is 100% a joke. Just to clear up any potential confusion, let me take a stand here and say: Stalking is bad. So very bad.) How long would you wait before contacting them?

I'm interested to hear about people's experiences and how they would deal/have dealt with the issue. I'm not asking because I'm looking to end my correspondence with my current penpals (YOU: You wrote a letter on paper that has 5 mm line spaces. I only write to people that have 5.8952 mm line spaces. I will stop writing to you immediately), but it's something I'm curious about. Is there some sort of Emily Post guide to penpal etiquette? If not, can I write it?!!! Emily Post Guide to Penpal Etiquette tip number 2,234,234: You MUST write on paper that has 5.8952 mm line spaces. Or else the world gets taken over by coconuts and pineapples. Then life becomes about drinking pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. Beware, this isn't half as fun as it might sound.

I look forward to your comments! I'll just be here, back-filling the first 2,234,233 tips in the Emily Post guide to Penpal Etiquette.... tip #1: always write letters using a writing instrument of some kind. Using a piece of spaghetti or a shoe to write a letter is useless and will get you nowhere....

tip #892: however, under special circumstances, such as a full moon on the 16th of November during a leap year, it is possible to use a car tire to write on a postcard, which then also doubles as a time-travelling device. But only if that tire came from a clown car that drove across Utah in the summer of '69....


  1. This is a very good question and one I've been pondering recently as well! I had a pen pal I just wasn't clicking with but I wasn't sure what to do, I just sent back a letter like usual and decided to hope they wouldn't respond, as terrible as it sounds. I don't know, maybe it would be better to be honest with them? I'm curious to see what people say. I like to avoid confrontation, but I would feel terrible if I just never wrote back.

    As far as people you haven't heard from in a while, I either send them an email (if I have it) or just write a little check in note, it depends on my mood. One time it turned out one of my British pen pals put the wrong stamp on my letter so royal mail put it on a boat and I got it a month later, she thought I just didn't want to keep writing! It was amusing and it's all sorted out now haha!

    1. I am so relieved to know that other people have no idea what to do either! I would also feel terrible if I didn't write back, but there has to be a happy medium between writing even though you don't want to and confrontation, right? Hopefully someone has a bona fide solution that we can then copy!

      That never ceases to amaze me--this idea of first and second class postage where mail comes by boat! The air mail sticker seems like a formality more than anything, but I forget that it is still used in some countries!

  2. International letters from Australia only travel by air. Parcels, however, can travel by surface. Wasn't that a fascinating mail fact for the day?

    Anyhow, in regards to your pressing topic of penpal etiquette: Is there such a thing? I'm fairly certain most people just make up the rules as they go along. I'm sure that for many it is far easy to just pretend someone doesn't exist and never write them again. I'm fairly certain that if I chose this option there'd be no one out there disappointed in not receiving my mail. I don't consider myself to be quite so interesting. I'm sure many a penpal has used this ignore-and-forget tactic on me, besides.

    However, I recently had a penpal (with whom I really enjoyed corresponding) contact me to advise that she could no longer write. She said it was because of life and work committments. That could just be code for, "I find you really boring and simply cannot be bothered wasting my time and money writing you", but at least she had the guts to let me know I was being culled. I was disappointed, of course, but you get that: Not everyone is going to like you. Not everyone is going to want to be your friend. That's life, right?


    1. That is indeed a very interesting mail fact.

      You're absolutely right that not everyone is going to like you, and not everyone is going to be your friend. I appreciate you commenting about your experience because it helps greatly to know that honesty appears to be the best policy. People are generally reasonable creatures, and I think we can all appreciate that other people have busy schedules.

      I hope you don't ever feel the need to resort to the ignore-and-forget tactic with me, because I, for one, would be disappointed to not recieve your mail. We avid readers should stick together! :)

  3. Sometimes it takes a good long time for a correspondence to hit its groove. I used to write to a gentleman whose letters always read exactly the same and he seemed quite distant, but after about a year, he began to write one or two extra lines about himself and finally started responding to things I wrote. I was very sad that I had to stop writing when I left my job a few years ago and had to cut back on my letter writing. I did send him (and many others) a letter letting him know it was my last and why. When I found a new job, I dragged my feet about rekindling the correspondence because I was pretty sure I'd have to start from scratch. I finally decided to not write him. I think it is best because, though it ended up being a rewarding exchange, it was often quite a challenge to respond to his typically dull letters.

    It is really hard to know for sure a correspondent isn't going to click until after a dozen or so letters. Some people just take a long time to warm up. However, if you do find it impossible to continue the exchange, do be honest and write the person and let them know it is your last letter and thank them for their past correspondence. You needn't to go into long explanations ... just a simple "I've decided to limit my correspondence to X." where X is "fewer correspondents," or "people who are cat crazy like me," or "shorter/longer letter writers," is enough.

    I rarely check by email to see if someone has gotten a letter I sent. Getting an email from someone asking if a letter arrived usually causes me to sigh because then I have to email back and let them know I have and then the email just hangs there with the unsaid "I will write back soon." I rarely have less than a one month turnaround. Often it is longer. Email just demands too much information. I do, however, if I really, really like writing to someone and it seems like they might not have received my last letter, send a postcard and mention something I know I wrote in the last letter, but not asking if it arrived. That mention will typically generate a response something like "what letter with the details about the bird that flew into your office?" or an "I got your letter about that wacky bird day, and thank you for the fun postcard!"

    P.S. Writing a letter with a shoe could get you somewhere if the letter was a giant one created by hopping on one shoe in the snow while an airplane of tourists flew overhead.

    1. Post Muse, you raised a number of interesting points (the not least of which is the tip about writing a letter with a shoe! Very clever! So clever that it's being added as Tip #504...).

      That is a great point that sometimes it takes a while for a correspondence to find its footing. Not everyone is naturally loquacious and chatty, and sometimes it takes a number of letters to feel comfortable. For example, I am a naturally reticent person and while my letters are long, it can take a while for me to become really personable and open. Like real life friendships, trust needs to be built. When I watch a new TV show and I don't like the first episode, I try to give it least 6 episodes before deciding to stop watching because sometimes it takes that many episodes for a show to find its rhythm. If I can have that sort of patience for something as inconsequential as a TV show, I think penpals deserve even more patience and time.

      That is a GREAT suggestion about sending a postcard and mentioning something in the letter (without asking if they received it). Some mail enthusiasts are comfortable incorporating email into their correspondence; others want to keep it more traditional. Blogging itself takes away some of the “what’s in my mailbox” surprise for the recipient if he/she sees an envelope addressed to them on someone’s outgoing mail post. As S. commented above, people probably just make up the rules as they go along, and I think we’re all navigating the strange waters of snail mailing in an age of blogging and email the best that we can.

      It’s very interesting to hear from people who have either been the stopper or the “stoppee” (or both) of a letter exchange so thank you for sharing your experience and insight into penpal “etiquette.” When I start abusing quotation marks, that’s how I know my comment has come to a close….

  4. I totally understand your complaint! I mean, if you're not willing to put your heart on a letter and share, just don't have freaking pen pals. I started having pen pals at the age of 11 or 12 when my address got published in a magazine. I got hundreds of letters thanks to that ad; some of the people I met then are still my friends, some I have met in person. And I know it's going sound shallow, but I didn't reply to those who had horrible spelling mistakes :/ (in Spanish, I'm from Argentina).

    Right now, I only write to people I really care about; generally these are friends I've met through their blogs first and of course, my friends from Argentina.