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Pen pals (or penpals, pen-pals, penfriends or pen friends) are people who regularly write to each other, particularly via postal mail. Pen pals are usually strangers whose relationship is based primarily, or even solely, on their exchange of letters. Occasionally pen pals may already have a relationship that is not regularly conducted in person.
A pen pal relationship is often used to practice reading and writing in a foreign language, to improve literacy, to learn more about other countries and life-styles, and to make friendships. As with any friendships in life, some people remain pen pals for only a short time, while others continue to exchange letters and presents for life. Some pen pals eventually arrange to meet face to face; sometimes leading to serious relationships, or even marriage.
Pen pals come in all ages, nationalities, cultures, languages and interests. Pals may seek new penfriends based on their own age group, a specific occupation, hobby, or select someone totally different from them to gain knowledge about the world around them.
A modern variation on the traditional pen pal arrangement is to have a keypal - also called e-pal - with whom one exchanges email addresses as well as - or instead of - paper letters. This has the advantage of saving money and being more immediate, allowing many messages to be exchanged in a short period of time. The disadvantage is that the communication can be very ephemeral if the email messages are not routinely saved. Many people prefer to receive paper letters, gaining the satisfaction of seeing their name carefully printed on a thick envelope in the letterbox. Using postal mail, it is possible to trade coupons, swap slips, postcards, stamps and anything else light and flat enough to fit inside an envelope, often called "tuck-ins". Many pen pals like to trade sheets of stickers, notecards and stationery sets.
While the expansion of the Internet has reduced the number of traditional pen pals, pen pal clubs can nowadays be found on the Internet, in magazine columns, newspapers, and sometimes through clubs or special interest groups. Some people are looking for romantic interests, while others just want to find friends. It seems, on the internet, that the term "pen pals" defines those looking to correspond with others that live in a different place, where pen pals originated via postal mail correspondences and has evolved to mean something more. Pen pals also make and pass around friendship books, slams and crams.
Many pen pals meet each other through organizations that bring people together for this purpose.
Organizations can be split into three main categories: free, partial subscription, and subscription-based clubs. Free clubs are usually funded by advertising and profiles are not reviewed, whereas subscription-based clubs will usually not contain any advertising and will have an administrator approving profiles to the database.
While the traditional snail mail pen pal relationship has fallen into a decline due to modern technology closing the world's communication gap, prison pen pal services have combined technology with traditional letter writing. These sites allow prisoners to place pen pal ads online; however, inmates in the United States and most of the world are not permitted to access the Internet. Therefore, the pen pal relationships with inmates are still conducted via postal mail. Other pen pal organizations have survived by embracing the technology of the Internet.
In popular culture
The Australian author Geraldine Brooks wrote a memoir entitled Foreign Correspondence (1997), about her childhood which was enriched by her exchanges of letters with other children in Australia and overseas, and her travels as an adult in search of the people they had become.
In the 1970s, the syndicated children's television program Big Blue Marble often invited viewers to write to them for their own pen pal.
At the 1964/1965 World's Fair in New York, the Parker Pen pavilion provided a computer pen pal matching service; Parker Pen officially terminated the service in 1967. This service did not work in conjunction with any other pen friend clubs. The computer system and database used for this service were not sold, taken over, or continued in any way.
In the Peanuts comic strip from the 1960s and 1970s, Charlie Brown tries to write to a pen pal using a fountain pen, but after several literally "botched" attempts, Charlie switches to using a pencil and referring to his penpal as his "pencil-pal"; his first letter to his "pencil-pal" explains the reason for the name change.
The film You've Got Mail (1998) is a romantic comedy about two people in a pen pal email courtship who are unaware that they are also business rivals.
The action-drama film Out of Reach (2004) is about a pen pal relationship between a Vietnam War veteran and a 13-year-old orphaned girl from Poland. When the letters suddenly stop coming, the veteran heads to Poland to find out the reason.
The film A Cinderella Story (2004) is a teen romantic comedy about two people in a pen pal email courtship who plan to meet in person at their high school's Halloween dance.
The plot of the novel Penpal (2012) takes a dark twist to this innocent idea; the protagonist is stalked ever since sending his letter.
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