April 18, 2013

Penpals and Interpals: How to Find a Penpal on the Internet

A victorian lady sits before her letter and considers the next line, her pen resting on the edge of her lips.
How I would like to look writing a letter
That letter writing is superior to e-mails or texts, is a first principle of most alternative cultures. The pleasure of receiving a thick envelope in the mail, reading another person's joys and sorrows in their own handwriting, feeling a real connection knowing that this letter was held in another's hands and traveled possibly thousands of miles to arrive at your door step. Nor need it be argued that the material of letter writing is infinitely preferable- the thick stationary, themed stamps, pens, fountain or quill, colored ink, and sealing wax. These are all able to reflect a particular aesthetic. But even a letter written on lined school paper in pencil is precious.

So, you have your paper, your pen, your desire to write the stories that clutter up your mind and have no outlet- but no address on your envelope. Correspondence isn't a single girl's game. There must be two to write.

I have six penpals to exchange letters with. Only two of them, my grandparents and my cousin, I knew previously. The other's are completely new. Where did I find them? On the internet.

Two richly dressed Victorian women sit reading a letter.
"Pleasant Letter" by Alfred Stevens

There are many sites to help penpals find similarly minded people. I've tried several over the years and my favorite is Interpals. The basic process is simple. You sign up for a free account which lets you create a profile. On this profile you can write as much or as little as you choose, though there are prompts like favorite books, favorite movies, etc. Unless you restrict the privacy settings, you can go view the profiles of other people and others can view your profile. If you find someone who strikes your interest, you send them a message. 

Yes, before you object, there are creeps, dullards, and pervs on the site. There's no way to really filter them on a free site. However, you have complete control over how much information you reveal about yourself- and you certainly wouldn't put anything too confidential. There is also a handy tool to block users from looking, commenting or sending you a message. 

But these are a small percentage of the genuinely lovely population which makes up the site. The trick to finding like minded people is to know how to write your profile and what to look for in a penpal. These are my tips to finding a good penpal on the internet:

A victorian woman with dark hair contemplates the first line of her blank letter.
Think before you write.
First, know what you want out of a penpal. Do you want long heartfelt letters dripping in emotions for each letter? Or do you prefer something lighter, more day to day activities? Do you want a regular correspondent who sends off a letter ever two weeks? Or someone who writes longer, more irregular letters? Do you care about mail art? Or is the content good enough for you?

For me, I am an irregular correspondent and I warn my potential penpals of that from the first message. There are days that I am inspired to write a twenty page letter and there are times when two or three months pass without comment. Know yourself and don't expect more from others than you do yourself. I also prefer longer, more emotional letters to chatty letters- but again. Know your audience- it is possible to have many different flavors of correspondent. 

The Queen Mother in a fur stole writing a  letter.
The Queen Mother writing letters before her marriage in 1923

Second, your profile:

~ Don't be stereotypical. This includes saying "I'm looking for interesting people." (Who isn't?), starting your profile with any variation of "Hi, My name is X. I am a X. I like X, X, X...." This is a chance to show your creativity and intelligence. In the same line, don't say "ask if you want to know more" when you have given the reader nothing to ask about.

~ Don't include a four inch paragraph of one word sound bites. Yes, it might pick up many more search keywords, but it is a pain to read through and gives very little about your personality.

~ Do write a long profile and update regularly. There is no shame in spending a great deal of time and effort making sure the face you are presenting to the world is as authentic, beautiful and thoughtful as possible. Yes, you are advertising yourself. That is why the website exists. So create a profile that strikes the balance between the person you'd like to talk with and who you are honestly. Personality isn't static.

~ Do include favorite books. It is the ultimate judge of a profile for me. I love Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I could probably quote more trivia than you'd believe possible. But if in the past twenty years you haven't read anything in the whole history of human fiction and non-fiction which you like better than Harry Potter- that is sad. Very sad. Also, if you want to speak with intelligent Europeans, your book list had better be extensive and varied. 

~ Do be polite with everyone. The annoying "hi how r u?" messages are inevitable. There are many ways to deal with them: block the offender, ignore the offender, send a brief "no thank you," or, my preferred method, a polite "no thank you" with a brief explanation of why you are declining the conversation. At least this way, they can see what mistake they made and maybe keep from doing it again.

~ Do respond to first messages promptly. If someone new messages you or someone replies to your opening message favorably, reply as soon as possible. It keeps the worry at bay.

~  Do be proactive in searching and messaging potential penpals. Don't wait for them to contact you first. Your first message should be short - no more than five sentences- show that you read the profile, ask a follow up question, and give them the chance to back out if they aren't interested. 

~ Do not be offended if someone doesn't wish to speak with you. There may not be that spark. There may not be the time. There may not be the interest. Either way, people are not obliged to speak with you. It is polite to give them a chance to back out to keep feathers from being ruffled. I ask that if they are too busy to write to give me a title of a book that they enjoyed, preferably from their country.

~ Do exchange several letters before giving out your address. Not only to make sure the person is trustworthy, but also to make sure that you have a good chemistry for writing.

~ Do have fun. This is a great way to be exposed to many different conversations and cultures. Be savvy, polite and never apologetic for your country. Think of good stories you want to share and specific things you want to know. 

In another post, I'll give my tips for writing a good letter. If you are interested in contacting me via interpals, my screen name is "EvelynCEC7B8." I'd love to talk. Have any of you used an online penpal finder?


  1. Would you like to be my penpal, Lynette? If so, please send you address to me at undergroundfortea@gmail.com.

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      Thanks for commenting. Yeah, there are a lot of rules. I'm the type of person who finds rules and guildlines fun. But there is really only one thing you need to know: just be polite and interested in the other person. Keep penpalling and I'm sure you'll get the hang of it!