For many, many people, the prospect of writing a thank-you note is a chore to be approached with dread. Why is this particular form of social grace considered so difficult a job to accomplish? I suspect because, just as in speech writing, you are required to actually apply butt to chair and examine your feelings. How to express emotions? Who wants to take the time to do that? Who really cares?
Why does this archaic little nicety matter so much in our world of instant communication? Not so long ago, I discovered, it mattered way more than I certainly imagined! I checked out Emily Post on this subject to see what the etiquette guru had to advise and was astounded at the weight she attached to the subject:
“The letter you write, whether you realize it or not, is always a mirror which reflects your appearance, taste and character. A ‘sloppy’ letter…badly worded, badly spelled, and with unmatched paper and envelope—even possibly a blot (Good Lord, not a BLOT!—MZ)—proclaims the sort of person who would have unkempt hair, unclean linen and broken shoe laces; just as a neat, precise, evenly written note portrays a person of like characteristics. Therefore, while it can not be said with literal accuracy that one may read the future of a person by study of his handwriting, it is true that if a young man wishes to choose a wife in whose daily life he is sure always to find the unfinished task, the untidy mind and the syncopated housekeeping, he may do it quite simply by selecting her from her letters.”
Who knew you could choose your future partner by the examination of a letter?
Seriously, though my thoughts on thank-yous are not nearly as grave as Emily Post’s, I do feel it is obligatory and gracious to take the time to write a note to thank people for a wedding, baby, bar/bat mitzvah or confirmation gift, and taking the time to thank a host and hostess for their hospitality (this used to be called a “bread and butter note” in North America) is always appreciated, though often dispensed with in favour of a verbal thank-you. And a phone call the next day is certainly an acceptable alternative for hospitality thank-yous.
Back to the written thank-you note. To me, what’s most important is the actual writing. If all you can manage is an email, instead of taking the time to write and mail a formal note, so be it. But here’s the thing: you should not allow another person to physically write it for you, (newly married couples are an exception…you can take turns/both sign it/ or sign representing both of you as a couple) you should not write it on behalf of someone ….like your child or another member of your family (unless they are incapacitated) and you should not use a template in which you drop in the giftor’s name and/or a standard description of the gift. (This is a no-no: “Thank you for your generous cheque. We will put it to good use.”) Oh, and you should not let the chore drag on twelve months past the receipt of the gift!
Why is sending a thank-you note a social norm that should be maintained and respected? We need to remember that we are not thanking the person for the actual physical gift so much as for the fact that they:
1. Thought of you
2. Wanted to do something nice for you
3. Took the time to choose something they felt appropriate that would be appreciated
4. Spent money on you
You are thanking them for sharing the occasion with you, celebrating with you, being thoughtful, and sending you their good wishes. If you keep that in mind, it may be easier to discount the fact that you have received an incredibly ugly lime green glass vase which you detest and have no use for. Really.
So, at a minimum, here’s what you do.
You break this little chore into three sections, which will probably end up as three sentences. (of course, if you have lots to say, go right ahead and say it!)
The first sentence should express your gratitude for whatever it was that they did for you. The second should specify what the gift is, and why you like or appreciate it, and/or how you intend to use it, and the third ideally remarks on something personal about your relationship with the giftor, how happy you are that they were able to share whatever the occasion was and/or how important they are to you.
If you can manage to get those three thoughts on paper, you’re almost there. Now, check the rhythm of the sentences. Could you speak them aloud and have them flow nicely and make sense? Have you repeated words or thoughts? Have you spelled everything correctly….especially the person’s name?
See? That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, just figure out how many you have to do a day, or a week, in order to get to the end of your list, and you’re there.
Image from Belletristics.