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Why The World Needs More Pen Pals

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I’ve been catching up on decades of movies via a free trial of Amazon Prime.  Last night, I watched  You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

The movie was released in 1998. I miss the 90’s, especially the clothes.  People wore practical, comfortable clothes, before cleavage and visible bra straps were in style.  I was having babies during that decade, and going through therapy.  I was also dealing with TMJ.  So it wasn’t all lovely, but still, I miss that decade.

The movie is a reminder of how far the Internet has come.  The two main characters use dial-up Internet to become electronic pen pals.  I was lucky enough to have Internet access at work, even back in the 80’s, so I avoided dial-up.  But with today’s WiFi, even the ISDN line I used seems quaint.  That’s the engineer in me speaking.

email symbolThe humanist in me is fascinated by the email exchange that was at the center of the movie. It was a chance for the protagonists to be their best authentic self.  It felt like a form of journaling/self-talk, but with a loving witness that was not God.  Nora Ephron, who directed the movie and co-wrote the screenplay, was a genius.  Both characters realize how the anonymity of the Internet allowed them to be their kindest with a stranger (quite the opposite of flaming) and also find an intimacy with their true feelings about life.   Photo by Jonathon Narvey

Which brings me to the lost art of being pen pals.

With most relationships, you see the person from the outside in, with the majority from the outside and a sliver of the inside.  You see what they are eating for lunch or that they had a meeting at 10am or that they wore their favorite shirt.  This is true of in-person relationships as well as virtual relationships, especially those that are fast-paced, transaction-oriented on social media platforms.
The pen pal relationship in the truest sense lends itself to showing the inside out.  How someone feels about what is happening on the outside, in a thoughtful manner.  So there are glimmers of what is on the outside (e.g., It snowed today), but more so is how the person feels about what is happening on the outside (e.g., I wish I could go out and play in the snow.)  The communications is stripped of bravado, or pretension, or anything related to getting noticed by a crowd.
Pen pal communications is intermittent, allowing more thought in between. Text is immediate, sometimes impulsive, mostly reactive.
Pen pal communication is different from a call with one of my friends. It allows for  immediate expression combined with thoughtfulness.
I keep coming back to this word: thoughtful.
How many times have you chosen words that are harsh, or inaccurate, or just plain without thought?  Yeah, me, too.  Well-chosen words are a gift to the reader/listener and can’t help but reflect well on the writer/speaker.
Unfortunately, the need to communicate quickly has created a style that is self-sabotaging.  The less we form relationships with our communications, the harder it is for our message to be received, as intended.
Pen pal communications requires slowing down to take in someone’s words, and being spontaneous enough to give your honest reaction.  It looks like this:
  • Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.
  • Having compassion, feeling what it must feel like to be in the other person’s shoes.
  • Wanting to be of service.
  • Celebrating the small and big things in life, for you and the other person.
  • Allowing yourself to be touched. Being genuine about how you feel about something, in a gentle and loving way.
  • Bringing the wisest part of you to the written word.

While it’s obvious how this can be applied to your personal life, I think it applies to your professional life as well.

The good news is that we each have the opportunity to practice pen pal communication, on a daily basis.  Does that sound crazy?  If it does, I’m glad.  The world needs more crazy, yet well-thought out ideas.  





  1. Margaret Ring Gillock on April 2, 2014 at 7:59 PM

    I love the idea of being part or a pen pal group!

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