Yetley: Lack of pen pals in early years signifies loss of communication

Claire Yetley

I was recently thinking about my third grade experience. In my class of 28, back in 2000, we were assigned a pen pal from Kansas City, MO. The next year, one of the more popular books for elementary girls was a book called, “Snail Mail No More” by Paula Danziger. I remember because I borrowed a copy from my friend and dropped it in a puddle and ruined her book. This book is basically about the transition from the literal writing of letters, snail mail, to emailing your friends instead.

I also have an 11-year-old brother, Noah, who has a cell phone, a gaming system and I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a Facebook account sometime soon. Noah has never had a pen pal. I don’t think he has ever written a letter. My mom has probably forced him to write “thank you” cards after a birthday party, but that is completely different than a real letter.

This got me wondering: Is it just by chance Noah has never written a letter, or is it our society switching over to a society where we contact people via Facebook or at least email more than writing letters? I have tried to look for stationery to write letters to relatives. Stationery is only really available if you order it online at a specialty website; it’s not something you can pick up at the store.

Letters used to be how we contacted loved ones from far away, the biggest example of this being love letters sent to soldiers overseas during wars. The letters provided a sense of motivation for the soldiers; now there is live chat. I’m sure live chat provides a better sense of encouragement for the soldiers, but are we losing an art form?

Live chat is just that, it’s chatting. There is less intelligence to it or time to pause and sort out what you really want to or need to say to that person. It’s similar to how breaking up with someone over the phone used to be considered so cold. Now a text is even less personal than a phone call and hopefully you can avoid being broken up with over Facebook. None of these forms of communication allow you to organize your thoughts as well as writing does. There are some people that are very good at expressing exactly what they mean as they say it, however not all of us are gifted with this skill. Through my experience and observing generally how people communicate, I would say the large majority of people do not have this skill and would not only sound much more intelligent but maybe complete an idea if they would just write it down.

Granted, email does allow you to organize your thoughts; there are many authors who only write on computers. But there is something personal about the direct connection between holding a pen in your hand and actually forming the letters and words to create the expression of your idea. Typing expresses the same idea, but once it is formed in the same Calibri font as every other paper, you have to make sure your name is attached, or else it is just another generic idea. This is similar to if you wrote the idea in your own handwriting and someone could see in much more detail your thought process and have a better understanding of what you meant. For example, if you had to cross out five different words to finally find the best one. Or another example would be if you were crying while writing a horribly sad letter and the reader could see where your tears hit the page. That’s quite an extreme example, but it demonstrates my point.

We are also losing a sense of penmanship. People used to spend hours simply practicing their penmanship as a child. Children would envision signing their name on important papers or letters to loved ones. The style they chose would represent themselves to the rest of the world who would read their writing. People adapted this cross between print and cursive. The only person I ever knew that used full cursive was a distant cousin, Mimi, who has to be about 80 years old by now. That just demonstrates the decline of penmanship, of the norm moving from something as formal and difficult as cursive, then to print and now even less people take the time to literally write out the words. Although there are definitely some, they are becoming fewer as society moves over to more electronics as a form of communication.

So I guess I end with a question: Are Noah and other children who are not assigned pen pals really missing something important, or is it just the evolution of human communication?


Claire Yetley is a junior in political science from Iowa City, Iowa.