Once the pandemic hit, Scottsdale entrepreneur Colleen Schwab started ramping up work on a new side venture where she connects everyone from teens to retirees with pen pals in other states and countries. She founded Pen Pal Life with the goal of reviving the lost art of letter writing and helping people really connect, at a time when so many feel isolated and alone. Pen Pal Life currently boasts nearly 130 customers from across the globe.
Schwab, an Arizona State grad who is also senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, cites many reasons letter writing is preferable to email, Facebook posts and our social media world. “While I love technology, and it has enabled career success, I yearn for moments in life that are different, emotional and make you pause,” she explains. “For me and many others, letter writing is what enables that to happen.”
One surprise? Pen Pal Life has attracted a large number of 20- and 30-year-olds, who are drawn to a more meaningful form of communication than social media. During a busy holiday season, Schwab helped explain the retro-cool draw of a pen pal, and why learning to slow down during this pandemic has been a good thing.
You were thinking of “simpler times” when you came up with this idea?
I grew up on a hobby farm in Minnesota. My days were spent feeding a baby calf before school, planting flower bulbs in early fall and spending as much time in my garden as possible. As we all get older, life gets busier, so we have to be intentional about how we create those “simpler times” for ourselves. The pandemic forced us to not fill our time with going out, shopping in brick and mortar stores and seeing our family or friends freely. So many forces aligned to enable the model of Pen Pal Life to become a success during these times.
Are you a frequent letter writer?
I am a letter writer, and had a pen pal when I was younger. My career has been built around marketing and communications, creating the foundation to emotionally connect messages to the intended receiver. While I love technology, and it has enabled career success, I yearn for moments in life that are different, emotional and make you pause. For me and many others, letter writing is what enables that to happen.
What are the benefits of letter writing vs. emails, Facebook, etc.?
The pandemic taught us all a lesson in perspective and really made it obvious that social media is a way to connect, but it doesn’t actually provide real connection. There is more technology available today than ever before, but the rates of loneliness are increasing. Younger people report higher rates of anxiety and depression as well. But, interestingly, research shows that loneliness may subside for younger adults when they reduce their social media usage. Letter writing also comes with added benefits. It has been proven to make you happier. Taking the time to put pen to paper affirms the importance of a relationship. It’s cathartic to slow down and be intentional about what you’re saying, and the end result of writing a letter is that the receiver will smile at the mailbox. Everyone’s inbox is [so] bombarded by emails that it is hard to find meaning and purpose in the endless scrolling. Receiving a letter is a heartfelt novelty that leaves a lasting impact. This feeling can never be replaced by technology.
What ages are signing up for Pen Pal Life?
We have customers aged 13-57, with the most common age group being people in their 20s and 30s. This trend has surprised me. Prior to launching, many people anticipated this would be a program for people who were retired. But that’s not what we’re seeing. Our customer base is growing, and we’re currently working with 128 pen pals from across the globe.
You’ve said Pen Pal Life is a great “slow parenting” trend for getting kids to step away from technology and connect with someone in writing. Can you elaborate?
Slow parenting or the slow movement is all about slowing down the pace of life, and letter writing is an opportunity to do just that. For kids, there are many advantages to writing letters. With technology, everything is so immediate. With letter writing, it is a process that takes time. One must put pen to paper, write the letter, lick the envelope, place the stamp, drop it in the mailbox and then wait. This lesson can be applied to many areas of life, setting up a child for future success. Letter writing is also shown to increase memory and understanding by activating the brain in ways that typing cannot replicate.
What percentage of your clients are kids, and is there a minimum or recommended age?
This is an area of our business we hope to build partnerships around in 2021. When a minor contacts us requesting a pen pal, we request that we speak with their parent or guardian in advance to add a layer of security to the process. While I know this is one more thing to do for already busy parents, it is a critical step that we’re passionate about. All kids that we have been contacted by so far are based in the United States.
A big part of Pen Pal Life is connecting pen pals while keeping home addresses anonymous. Why is that?
While crime rates in the U.S. have decreased since 1990 in most major cities, we’ve also seen trust between people and business decrease, and that is largely due to the increase in technology and people not always offering up their true self in the digital world. Also during the pandemic, our homes have never been more sacred. They house our most precious possessions, whether that be our kids, family, friends or prized possessions. Not sharing your home address with a stranger provides you one less thing to stress about. With Pen Pal Life, you still have the opportunity to connect with someone from across the globe [without having] to share your home address. There’s a sense of calm, excitement and freedom that comes from that.
How are you screening applicants, and do you ever read any of the letters to make sure content is appropriate?
Our pen pal match form asks for a bit of information about the person and desired traits of their ideal match. We do our best to connect people that appear to have similar interests. Just like developing friends, having some commonalities enables a connection to be formed more easily. We do not read the letters that come in due to wanting that relationship between the two people that opted into it. Our open door policy does encourage any of our pen pals to come to us if there is an area of concern.
What are you hearing from customers?
Our customers all have different motivations for wanting to write letters. Some seek nostalgia, some are intrigued by something they’ve never done before, some are wanting a break from social media, and others just want to see the world through someone else’s eyes slowly. Many also find that letter writing is a creative outlet and they create a routine around writing. Whether that be having a glass of wine, sipping a cup of tea or watching the sunrise, letter writing is an individualized process that can be done where wifi doesn’t exist.
Can you share any personal experiences with letters through Pen Pal Life?
Every person that opts into a pen pal relationship is an emotional process for me because I’m humbled that people seek to meet someone new via letter writing. One memorable moment is when I was contacted by a woman seeking a pen pal for her uncle. He is 78 years old, recently widowed, plays the handbells and delivers meals on wheels. She said he enjoys writing letters and hoped that finding someone to connect with via letters would give him something fun to look forward to. That’s really what we’re all about — smiling at the mailbox and saving letter writing.
Do you have any tips for effective letter writing — to a pen pal or even to a friend or family member?
Many people almost get intimidated by the process of letter writing, but I’m here to tell you to let that go, because at the heart of letter writing is your true self. It is all about authenticity, so don’t get so caught up on making sure every word is spelled perfectly, or that your grammar is without error, or that your letter structure is what you think it should be. Letter writing also affords us the opportunity to provide context to the moments that happen in our lives or the thoughts we’re having.
With our technology devices, we’re accustomed to giving the Cliff Notes of life. When you sit down to write a letter, think about the context that helps you visualize the story like when you’re reading a book. In those happy moments, this will help you commit those moments to memory. With those challenging stories to write, putting it to paper can help to release the emotions tied to the situation. While I say all of this, know that it is 100 percent OK to start slow. Write a short letter that is maybe just a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph. The important thing is to put pen to paper. I guarantee whoever you’re sending that letter to will be thankful you did.
What would you like to add?
We know that not everyone is interested in having a long-term pen pal. We also know that writing down words on paper can be an emotional release, cathartic and fun. So we also recently created The Random Letter Project. This is an opportunity that for free, you can write a letter with your thoughts, confessions, life story, or story about how your kid made you smile and send it off. You’ll then get one letter back from someone doing the same. This won’t be an ongoing pen pal, but sort of a random moment to get a random letter without ever having to reveal your home address or personally identifiable information. We invite everyone to try it out and smile at the mailbox while learning a snippet of someone else’s life. You never know what you might read!
Pen Pal Life connects people around the globe to pen pals with common interests for $5-$8 per month. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 602-780-3047.