Friday, November 26, 2010

Why Don't My Pen-Pals Write Back?: How to Keep a Pen-pal Relationship Alive

(Admit it. This is what you are really after.)
It's easy to get onto a "friend finder" website, write up a form letter about how you're a lonely foreign person looking for friends in Japan, and send it off to the first 20 people that show up in your search results.

But, out of the 20 people you send to, maybe only a handful respond. And although things seemed to be going great with that handful, a week later none of them are replying to your messages anymore. So, what's wrong? Why aren't the pen-pals you made writing back anymore?

In my experience, about 1 in 10 people I've contacted had similar enough communication styles to be long-term pen pals. And in the same way, many people have contacted me who I just didn't "click" with and so I found it difficult to reply to their messages.

So, the first rule is:
1) Just Keep Trying
If the people you contacted didn't reply or stopped replying, search again for other people to contact, or wait a week and then post a new ad on whatever site you're using.

There's always going to be a timing issue. People get busy at work or school, or they start a new project, take up a new hobby, study for a test, get a new girlfriend--there's a million reasons why someone can suddenly get busy and just doesn't have time to keep up with messages from pen-pals. A week passes without answering a message, then two weeks, then a month, then finally they get too embarrassed to reply and just delete the message.

Whatever. It happens, right?

But, on the other side of things, there's also always going to be dozens of other people who aren't busy and want to swap messages with you. So, if you stop hearing from one pen-pal, try making another.

2) Tailor the Message
When you write to a new pen-pal, though, don't use a form letter that you've been sending out to a dozen other people. Read their ad and tailor your message to that person. Pick something you liked in their ad, and tell them you like it too. People are more likely to respond to a message that was written specifically to them.

3) Keep Things Light
It can be a huge turn-off to get a first or second message from someone that says, "Hey, I wanna see your picture!" or "Hey, what's your Skype?" Some people just want to be pen-pals. And even people who are interested in swapping pictures or chatting on Skype usually want to know more about the person they've just met before handing out that kind of personal information. Take some time to lead into questions about their Skype name or Facebook profile. In my opinion, a week or two of messaging isn't too long. And keep the request light by phrasing it as a question or asking how they feel about it. "Would you be interested in talking on Skype sometime?" or "Can I ask your e-mail address?" It's polite, and they're more likely to respond.

In the same vein, your new pen-pal doesn't really want to hear about how you've been in the hospital because of a suicide attempt or how you just got diagnosed with AIDS. Think about it: If you get a message like this, you're gonna squirm for some legitimate response better than, "Man. That sucks." And as soon as replying starts to feel like a hassle, you're not gonna find the time in your day to do it. So, keep big "revelations" out of the picture until your friendship is solid enough to handle that kind of talk.

4) Ask Questions
In every message you write to a pen-pal (that you want a response from), be sure to add a question in the message. Ask about something they wrote last time, or ask their opinion about something you wrote. The reader needs to know that you're writing *to* them and that you care what they have to say, or else they're going to lose interest and stop responding. A question in the message body adds a sense that they need to follow-up to what you've said. As more messages pass between the two of you, and you learn more about your pen-pal, this kind of genuine writing becomes more natural and easy to compose. It's during those first few messages with a new pen-pal that it's really hard to come up with good questions. Everyone has already been asked "What kind of music do you like?" or "What are your hobbies?" a billion times. Ask something more specific, like about their favorite song by a specific artist they mentioned, or mention something interesting you've done and ask if they've ever tried it before.

5) A Word About Looking for "Friends"
Some people get on pen-pal sites to find a boyfriend/girlfriend (or something more transient). And it's not by any means limited to gender--plenty of Japanese girls who want to bag a foreign boyfriend hang out at these sites, too. If that's what you're after, there's probably someone else on the site who's looking for someone like you.

But, bear in mind that not everyone on the site is there to hook up, and you're dealing with real people on the other end of your screen.

Even if you're hoping for romance, most relationships are usually preceeded by some kind of friendship or acquaintance. If you always start out by spilling the beans about how you're looking for a Japanese girlfriend (and are therefore only contacting that person with the hope it'll lead into a relationship), you're going to come across a lot of potential pen-pals who mysteriously "forget" to write back.

Finally, if you've been exchanging messages with someone for a while, and now you're hoping it'll someday lead to something else, be up front about it. Then, respect and abide by the answer you get, even if it is negative.


  1. For the above article about pen friends, and how to get the best out of seeking and talking to potential social site users, it's a good one! Best tips I found yet!

  2. I have put out so many penpal ads, not to mention written to about 14 people both foreign and domestic and only received 2 back. Where is that one person or persons who like to write snailmail letters as much as I do???? My email address is