Challenge: Send a holiday card to a stranger

lick it

My challenge to you: send a holiday card to a stranger from the phone book.

I was addressing our family’s holiday cards this year, and I had a couple left over after my list was done. So I found the White Pages, opened to a random page, and found a couple’s name and address. I wrote them a nice note in the card, enclosed a copy of our annual newsletter, and sent it. Then, again. The cards went out yesterday, and I suppose that’ll be the end of it.

Why am I bothering to tell you about it? Because I think you should do it too. Here are the reasons why:

• It’s fun. A little bit of minor mischief is exhilarating. For example, I think it’d be cool to work on an Improv Everywhere mission, to play a small part in making the lives of strangers more surreal, but those guys usually operate on the other side of the country from me. This is my very small way of doing the same thing.

• It’s cathartic. I watched a lecture once about the types of programming that we all undergo simply to interact functionally with society. For example, we obey driving rules, in the interest of the greater good, and usually that gets us where we’re going without a hitch.

Occasionally breaking out of those bounds, however — doing things that are “wrong,” even if harmless — keeps us cognizant and gives us perspective.

Examples (these are all things I’ve done): In the dead of night, with no cars for miles around, stopping the car on the highway and touching the ground outside. In a deserted building, using the “wrong” restroom. Asking for a hamburger in a hardware store, or a hammer in McDonald’s.

Why would we hesitate before doing any of these (ultimately harmless) things? Because social roles are very powerfully conditioned into us. Usually, as mentioned, that’s good — it keeps us safe, and allows strangers to interact smoothly so the world can work. But when you order a hammer at McDonald’s, you add a hiccup into the routine, and thus become very aware of it. Sending a card to a stranger is similar.

• It might touch someone. Probably what’ll happen is, the recipient of your card will be a little confused, then figure that either someone made a mistake or they’ve been placed on some mailing list. Whatever explanation settles their unease more, they’ll accept, and then they’ll either keep the card or throw it away, the end.

But maybe the person is lonely. You don’t know. Maybe a little note saying “All the best, warm wishes,” etc. would be a nice pick-me-up.

Of course, maybe a lonely person would get even more depressed if the only card they received seemed like a mistake. I guess this is an inherent risk of the plan.

• It could lead to something. You might get contacted by the person you sent the card to! You might even become fast friends. Now, it should be noted that you might also be ax murdered in your sleep — but again, inherent risk.

SO. All that being said, here are my tips for sending cards to strangers:

• Pick your names randomly, but wisely. I opened the phone book to a random page, but then searched that page for a married couple with their full address listed. To cut down the risk of unduly confusing people, I also tried to choose names that weren’t obviously seniors (“Elmer & Agnes”).

I’d advise sending holiday-neutral cards, but if you do have overtly Christian cards, say, try to avoid the Cohens and the Goldbergs. Just to hedge your bets.

Oh, and you can find a ZIP code for any U.S. address here.  Leave off the +4, it’ll look like you got the address from a mailing list.

• Don’t make a big deal about it. The perfect situation is if you have one or two bulk cards left over from a pack — the cheap ones you probably got at Rite Aid are great. Don’t buy a $4 Hallmark card, or it’ll seem too planned. And I wouldn’t use Wondermark cards, for two reasons: firstly, they’re kind of expensive and if you’ve bought them, I’d hate for you to waste them; secondly, they’re branded with ‘wondermark.com’, and the recipient, looking for clues to the mystery, might find this website, with this post, and then the jig is up.

This was the one thing I did wrong. I send out Wondermark cards every year (special exclusive designs not available for sale!), and between the branding on the card itself and the mentions of my books in the enclosed newsletter, it would be easy for the strangers receiving my cards to write the whole thing off as a viral marketing gimmick. Remember, when confused, folks search for whatever explanation they can hang their hat on — anything that looks like marketing, or a prank, or out-of-the-ordinary at all could cause them to make those assumptions.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with them thinking whatever they like — it’s not like there’s some specific response we’re trying to provoke here. We’re just trying to make people wonder.

• But do have fun with it. I recommend writing a warm, perfectly normal note (no “Thanks for the backrub last night” or “The aliens are after you”), and for maximum puzzlement, enclosing a brief family newsletter. Again, the aim is to be perfectly banal and typical, with nothing to show your hand that you don’t know these people.

A touch of the weird is fine. Your newsletter can talk about your accordion concert tour across Bulgaria. But keep it subtle.

• Don’t expose yourself unnecessarily. Absolutely feel free to omit a return address, if you want to avoid any chance of it getting back to you — in fact I’d recommend this for the majority of cases. Don’t take chances, for the aforementioned ax-murderer reasons. Or, if you want to leave the door open for a response, perhaps you can use a real address (a P.O. box?) with a fake name.

THAT’S IT. Now let me hear your ideas, and also tell me your stories — will you try it? Did you? Against all odds, did you get a response? Share your thoughts with me and other readers on the Wondermark forum.

This holiday season…let’s everybody waste 42¢ together.

* Special note for kids under 16: “Phone books” are what we used to look up phone numbers before the Internet, back when residences had single shared phones for an entire household. The book itself listed all the numbers, and sometimes addresses, for the residents in a given geographic area. Your local library may have archival examples.

** A “library” is a place where … oh, forget it.


  • Pelotard

    I’ve done something similar for New Year, with a telephone. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and Edith (who lived in another country) seemed genuinely happy to get a phone call out of the blue with season’s wishes.

  • http://eagledawg.blogspot.com Nikki

    Compelling idea, and I’m writing to let you know that the under-16 crowd is well aware of what the 21st library is :) Cheers!

  • http://www.thecomiconline.com Ignacio Nova

    When an impulse to break free from normalcy hits me, I have to act on it (usually, and it never involves anything criminal, or at least very criminal). Stuff like sitting down in the street at night with oncoming cars shining their lights on you. It’s imperative that you never let the onslaught of routine swallow up your life.

    Anyhow, this is one of those dynamite ideas, and consider me a PARTICIPANT. Thanks for the spark.

  • Ghede

    We still use phone books. Not only are they free packing material for our E-bay merchandise, but they have NUMBERS in them too!

  • Dan Parry

    I’ve done this, only slightly less random. I lived at the Grand Canyon (for real) and my roommate went to some university. So we picked up the student directory, picked three names at random, and I made out postcards detailing how I went West with “You know who” and surprise, we have no money now that the van broke down.

    I asked for money, and sprinkled the cards with details only people who went to school there would know.

    I received one reply, from a girl who wrote all sorts of stuff back and only at the end of the letter apologized for not remembering me. I’m not sure if I should be afraid or not.

  • F.

    My annual Christmas prank is actually turned towards people I know and good friends.

    I write a letter to Santa, who will, of course, answer to it. Thing is, I sign by their name and write their own address. A great success ! And a range of reactions, too !

    As Santa answers with a standard letter, but sometimes add a little comment, I leave little hints… “I want a toboggan to play with my friend F”, “I want stuffed animals because I can’t bring them home from the zoo” (the “victim” works at the zoo..).. With a bit of chance, the volunteer will answer that little hint..

    Also, I scan the letter I send to Santa and show it to the victim later. It usually doesn’t take long before I’m identified as the culprit..

    The funniest and hardest part is to write what a child would write, in a child handwriting.

    Also, don’t use email to Santa. Nothing beats a real letter from Santa.

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    It would be especially nice to call your local nursing home and see if someone there could use one…

  • Coco

    I like this idea!

    Were you, perchance, a sociology major in school? You sound like you are referencing Garfinkel’s critique of Parsonian functionalism in your discussion of social norms and hammers at McDonalds.

  • Brian in Ireland

    I’m definitely going to try this, thanks. I’ll send it off on Monday.

  • rollercoater_toaster

    I did this one Christmas but with a trashy romatic novel I found at our holiday rental apartment. I looked up someone in the phone book with the same name as a main character in the book and sent it to them. A random yet personalised Christmas gift!
    Am off to send left over Christmas cards now (it’s cheaper than finding and sending everyone a Mills and Boon book, but still just mischevious enough to make me happy).

  • Maura

    I’ve done this every single Christmas since I was 15. I usually get a thank you card. Once, by the strangest coincidence ever, I got a Happy Thanksgiving card on my birthday (which is in March.) Fantastic times with the mail.

  • Alan

    In response to the “asking for a hammer in McDonald’s” bit, a quote of Salvador Dalí:

    “I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone.”