Monday, January 6, 2014

Why and How to Write Thank-You Notes

With cursive writing leaving some school curricula and the prevalence of email, one might think the hand-written note is marching toward extinction. There certainly is a decline, but there is one area where a hand-written note will never be matched by a digital version: The thank-you note.

As a little kid, my uncle would often send me small trinkets from his travels around the world. I loved receiving these letters about lands I had only seen pictures of, and treasured the foreign coins and other small items, putting them in a place of honor -- into my little "treasure box." (You know, the kind every child has with special seashells, or a bird's feather inside.) One day, when I was eight, his letter ended by saying that he hoped I liked his correspondence, but that he had not heard from me as to whether I did, so if I wanted to continue to receive his letters, I would need to respond. If I did not respond, he would take that as a polite "no, thank you," and not be offended. Since I was small, I had not considered his feelings until I read that, and when I did, I felt very bad for possibly hurting his feelings.

I wanted very much to continue to learn about his adventures, but I also did not know how to respond. It seemed very overwhelming to me. And because I thought I would get in trouble with my parents for having done something wrong, I hid his letter instead of asking for help. I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but I did not know how. I never wrote back to thank him, and his letters stopped.

I hear now about grandparents sending gifts to grandchildren who never even call to say thank you, and I am grateful for the lesson I learned at such a young age -- one must always show her appreciation.

A verbal thank-you is, hopefully, second nature. It is the absolute least a recipient can do... Something we offer to the stranger in front of us who holds open a door.

So, when someone takes the time and effort to do something for someone, or to give something to someone, the thank-you must be equivalent to the way the recipient feels. Receiving a gift is quite a bit more substantial than slipping in through an opened door, so a thank-you note is required to show appreciation for the thought, if not the gift itself.

As we have moved to a place where there are few, if any, hand-written notes in our mailboxes, thanking someone with a pen and paper takes on even greater meaning than it has ever enjoyed before. Thank-you notes have always been used to show appreciation, but now that an entire generation has grown up without posting notes and letters regularly, thank-you notes carry an even greater weight of gratitude than ever before. Think about how it feels to flip through the mail and discover, mixed in among the credit card offers, catalogs and bills, an envelope with a hand-written address on it instead of a printed one. I'll bet it's the first envelope to be opened from the pile.

The reason it feels so good to receive a hand-written note is because it means that someone cares. Someone cares enough to have taken the time to not only write a thought or feeling, but to have opened the desk drawer, pulled out a pen and a notecard, looked up an address, and found a stamp. Writing a hand-written note in the 2010's is nearly an event -- nearly as love-filled as baking cookies or creating a hand-made project. In short, a hand-written note is a tangible object the recipient can appreciate not only for the physical note, but for the thought behind it as well.

When it comes to thanking someone, can anything else so simple have as much impact as writing a thank-you note?

Unfortunately, many people intend to write thank-you notes, but feel a little overwhelmed by how to start. I was taught to use the simple formula of three parts...

Opening: Start by thanking the person for the gift.
Body: Follow with why the gift is great.
Closing: Finish by thanking the person again.

Over the years of thank-you note writing, I've learned a few additional things. The note does not need to be long -- it's the thought that counts most -- but it does need to be personal so that the recipient knows it is truly meant for him, and is not just a form letter copied onto pretty stationary.

Opening additions:
If the thank-you note is late, avoid the temptation to start the note by apologizing. A line can be added as a P.S. at the end to apologize, but this note is about the person who gave the gift, not about how busy one has been, so the focus must stay on the gift, itself. (Late is technically more than two weeks from when the gift was received, but most people are just happy to receive a thank-you note. Wedding thank-you's are acceptable within a month, but do let the person know the gift arrived (by phone, email or even text!) right away so they don't worry.)

If the gift is monetary, one should never say "thank you for the money/check." Some consider it crass to talk about money, and since thank-you notes are a bit more formal, one should use euphemisms. "Your generous gift" is an easy option.

Body additions:
This section is the body of the note, so one must think about how the gift made her feel when she received it, and try to convey those feelings. One wants the reader of the note to feel good. This is the area one gets to show her true appreciation, and make the gift-giver feel special.

If the gift is not her taste, she should not lie, but instead should remember that the person she is thanking took time and made an effort to give it, and she should think about how that love makes her feel. "Receiving your gift on my birthday made me feel special," is fully truthful.

When it comes to thanking someone for money or a gift card, including how the gift will be used is nice. Newlyweds are often given monetary gifts, so if that money will be going toward a new home, or something special the couple has not yet received from their registry, include that in the note. It makes the gift-giver feel good to know that it will be used for something one really wants -- that was the idea in giving the gift in the first place.

Thank-you notes do not need to be overly formal in tone if that does not reflect the relationship. My Southern wife, who puts my thank-you note writing to shame, likes to include an inside joke or something cute or funny to make the reader smile. This makes the note personal, and not generic. She also sometimes includes a picture of the gift being used -- for instance, when a friend gave our pup a beautiful hand-made sweater, my wife included a picture of him wearing it with the thank-you note.

Of all my thank-you notes, thanking our friends and family for our wedding gifts was the most difficult. My wife and I wrote them together, working on a few each night, but what made them difficult was our desire to convey just how much gratitude we felt, while at the same time not allowing any of the notes to feel impersonal. "Thank you for the dish" is a start, but including how the dish may be used (the newlyweds' first Thanksgiving, perhaps?) as well as how much it meant for the person to have taken the trouble to attend our wedding and celebrate with us was important.


Above all, remember that the point of the note is to recognize what the other person did, and to make him feel special.  If one gets stuck, she should take a minute to think as specifically as she can, and remember that taking the time to sit and think about the gift and the gift-giver means so much more than an email ever could.




1 comment:

  1. I think it is a lost art! I made sure the two days after my wedding to get out the Thank you notes It was a real pain between trying to say thank you to people I had no clue who they were and the hand cramps. But I had a Friday night wedding and a lot of people took an early day at work for my 6 pm wedding. They took time for me and I had to do the same for them. I of course did a more laid back thank you post card. But I did receive a lot of generous gifts. I did also get some crazy re-gifts but I think that you need to thank for gifts. I specifically picked out great personalized postcards for the thank you cards. I think if you get yourself a great set of Thank you cards or cards in general that you will be more likely to use them/give thanks. However, I did not spend a lot of money on the Thank you notes but I was jazzed about them!

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