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A penpal 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 penpals for only a short time, while others continue to exchange letters and presents for life. Some penpals eventually arrange to meet face to face; sometimes leading to serious relationships, or even marriage.
Penpals come in all ages, nationalities and cultures. 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 penpal arrangement is to have a keypal and exchange 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 penpallers like to trade sheets of stickers, notecards and stationery sets.
Penpal clubs can 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 for relationships, where pen pals originated via postal mail correspondences and has evolved to mean something more. Penpals also make and pass around friendship books, slams and crams.
In recent years, pen pal correspondence with prison inmates has gained acceptance on the Internet. Many pen pal newsletters do not publish prison pen pal ads because these communications require more caution, not simple friendships. WriteAPrisoner.com and many other prison pen pal sites are proactive, though, in offering full disclosure of inmates' crimes and providing advice for would-be pen pals.
Many penpals 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 inmates 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 is 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, 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. This service was officially terminated by Parker Pen 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", with his first letter to his "pencil-pal" explaining the reason for the name change.
The 2004 action-drama film Out of Reach is about a pen pal relationship between a Vietnam veteran and a 13-year-old orphaned girl from Poland. When the letters suddenly stop coming, he heads to Poland to find out the reason.