Friday, January 24, 2014

Penpal Etiquette

YIKES. It's a good thing that blogging regularly wasn't on my list of New Year's goals because then I'd be on FIRE...with, you know, failed aspirations and hopes. YAY!

I apologize for the radio silence over the last few weeks. Truth be told, I'm still trying to get used to blogging regularly and I won't lie, it seemed more imperative to re-watch episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than it was to blog. (I also ate some bacon.) Don't hold it against me. Especially since it will happen again. (I hate to lie to old friends so I hope that you'll appreciate my brutal honesty. Just call me Luna Lovegood! LOONY.)

Since it's a brand new year, I thought it might be helpful to review some penpal etiquette tips! Because you want to start your letter writing year off with a bang, right? Especially since it's almost Lettermo time! And I know that I could use a review of penpal etiquette tips—lately I've been pairing green pens with blue ones, requesting flamethrowers in letters, and putting my stamps on at 30 degree angles, which everyone knows is SO 2011!! Such impropriety! I'm ashamed to even admit it.

Penpal Etiquette*

*I wrote this article for the February 2013 issue of the League of Extraordinary Penpals monthly newsletter. But I think the tips are still relevant, given that we haven't learned how to read minds quite yet so I hope you bear with! 

Emily Post is a name that is synonymous with etiquette. In her 1922 book, Post has an entire chapter dedicated to correspondence. Some of her etiquette gems for letters include:

  •  "Paper should never be ruled, or highly scented, or odd in shape, or have elaborate or striking ornamentation"
  •  "The flap of the envelope should be plain and the point not unduly long"
  •  "No lady should ever sign a letter 'respectfully,' not even were she writing to a queen. If an American lady should have occasion to write to a queen, she should conclude her letter 'I have the honor to remain, Madam, your most obedient.'"
  • "It is true that if a young man wishes to choose a wife in whose daily life he is sure always to find the unfinished task, the untidy mind and the syncopated housekeeping, he may do it quite simply by selecting her from her letters."

Huh. Even if you understood what Emily Post was saying, it appears that her tips for correspondence etiquette are a bit outdated. For example, plain envelopes and paper that have no decorations? No way! We love our mail art! So what is penpal etiquette in 2013 (*cough*2014*cough*)? Although everyone has their own opinion about the topic, here are our tips and suggestions:

1) It's good to be on the same page with your penpal when it comes to expectations so have an open discussion about what you're hoping to get out of the relationship. For example, you may want to discuss things like frequency and letter length right at the beginning of a penpal friendship just to see if you're on the same page. If you like to write a bi-monthly 2 page letter while your penpal prefers writing 30 page letters twice a year, you might not be a good match. Or you might need to re-adjust your expectations so that you're not disappointed. Obviously, it's not a contract that is written in stone, but it helps to know if you have the same approach and mind-set to penpalling.

It helps to be on the same page! Because you don't want to be buried under paper like this poor sap! What a dink. 

This also applies to discussing your preference for typed vs handwritten letters, as well as any topics that you may not be comfortable talking about (ie: politics, religion, or sex). We're not suggesting that you provide people with a list of things they can and can't talk about in a letter, but a simple "I'd prefer not to talk about ladies with moustaches" can save both of you some awkwardness down the line.

It's important to note that having an open discussion about expectations does not mean that you should provide a grocery list of demands. For example, stipulating that your penpals have to write you a certain amount of pages, reply within a certain time frame, only write on paper that has ballet-dancing hippos, alternate pen colours so that every 6th line is the perfect shade of blue, only use a fountain pen that has been blessed by a unicorn (aw shucks, my unicorn connections are on vacation! What are the chances?!)... demands such as these kill the fun. Penpalling should not be a chore or feel like work, and you wouldn't want to complete a checklist of demands when writing a letter so don't ask that your penpals do the same.

2) Write interesting letters that encourage conversation and that you would be excited to read if you were on the receiving end. We've found that it helps if you imagine the person being right next to you when you write your letter. Pretend you're having coffee with an old friend! Don't dominate the conversation by only talking about yourself (this includes making your letter simply a list of items, such as your hobbies or a list of things that you've done since you last talked. Open up and provide details!) and don't simply ask questions either. Your penpal wants to hear about you too!

It can be very difficult to find that balance between opening up about yourself but not making the letter all about you. When in doubt, read your letter. Does it sound like your letter is a long diary entry that could have been written to anyone? Or is it full of personal references and inside jokes that are specific to the person you're writing to? If your letter reads like a long diary entry, you may want to rethink how you've written it. (Helpful note: if what you're reading starts with "Dear Diary," you may actually just be reading your diary. You're welcome!) Penpalling is about connecting and the recipient wants to feel as if he/she is part of the conversation too. Who wants to spend time with someone who only talks about themselves?

Source: Simon and Finn

3) Life is busy, so be understanding. If you don't hear from a penpal for a long time, don't get frustrated. Be patient and respect that penpalling can't always be someone's number one priority. Life gets busy and your penpal will write when he/she can. Perhaps your penpal is busy saving the world; as you already know, it's difficult to pen a letter in the middle of chasing a supervillain. Also, penpalling is a two-way street: if you haven't heard from your penpal in a long time, why don't you send a postcard just to see how they're doing? It's possible that your letter simply got lost and they're waiting to hear from you.

The flip side is this: if you're going to be late with your reply, try to keep your penpal informed. Send an email or a quick postcard (ie: Dear Penpal, I'm currently busy saving the world. Please record Downton Abbey for me). I'm sure your penpal would appreciate knowing that the delay in your response is simply because you're busy and not because you've decided to stop writing. Also, when it does come time to reply to your penpal, refer to etiquette suggestion #2. Don't just write a quick and hasty response simply for the sake of "getting it done." If your penpal took care and time to write you a great letter, return the favour (especially if your penpal has been patient). If you don't have the time to write a properly thoughtful letter, then wait until you do. Your penpal would probably rather wait for a great letter, than read a hurried and very short response.

4) If you decide to end a penpal relationship, let your partner know. This is a tricky one, because rejection is never fun. But it's better to be honest and tell the other person if you decide to end the friendship. Sometimes you don't click with a person or the letters start feeling like a chore, it's okay to want to stop writing. While you can simply avoid or ignore the other person, it's not very polite. And since we're are Canadian, we're big fans of being unfailingly polite, eh? (We also live in igloos, play hockey, and keep beavers as pets.) So we encourage you to be honest and let them know that you've decided not to continue the relationship. Your penpal will appreciate your honesty.

Penpal etiquette is a fluid topic and none of these tips are hard and fast rules. They are derived from our own experiences, and you may have some others that you'd like to add based on your own experiences. If so, email us and let us know!

Although most of Emily Post's tips are dated, there is one that is still very relevant for 2013 (*cough*2014*cough*): "The letter you write, whether you realize it or not, is always a mirror which reflects your appearance, taste and character." In other words, present yourself in the best light with each letter; if you want to be an extraordinary penpal, always write extraordinary letters.

YES. Even David Mitchell agrees. 


  1. Love this post! So enjoyable to read & really helpful for a pen pal newbie such as myself :)

  2. I have the hardest time with pen pal writing but I enjoyed this post! :) Ready to give it a shot! Thank you for the good read!