The Lost Art of Writing Thank You Notes
Handwritten on embossed stationery--or in special circumstances by e-mail--sending a thank-you note is the best way to express gratitude
Has the handwritten thank-you note gone the way of fingertip bowls, dressing for dinner, and gentlemen placing their cloak atop puddles for their ladies fair?
Not according to Marja Barrett, author of Business Manners for Success and Kentucky's own authority on all things etiquette. While the art of writing thank-you notes has been influenced by technology, it has not vanished from the etiquette landscape. It is a nicety still practiced with eagerness among polite society, instilled in children by parents who inculcated themselves in the art of putting pen to paper to express their gratitude, and taught by Barrett to people everywhere who wish to flex their manners.
"When someone has taken some time to do something for us--whether it is to go out and buy us a gift or send us a check--these are the times to send a thank-you note," says the Fort Mitchell resident, who conducts classes year-round on social poise.
"Thank-you notes are an often neglected but still a very important part of our society, both personally and professionally," adds Peggy Noe Stevens, a master bourbon taster (in fact, the first female master bourbon taster in the world) who is also an authority in Kentucky traditions and history and a certified protocol and etiquette expert. "They should be written every time you are given a gift, treated to a meal, or shown a significant act of kindness.
"Ideally, they are handwritten on personalized stationery or note cards and mailed within 48 hours, but if time gets away from you, the old 'better late than never' rule certainly applies."
Adds Jo Bryant, etiquette expert with Debrett's, the "modern authority on all matters of etiquette, taste, and achievement," says, "It is important to refer to the present or act of kindness in the letter and make a detailed comment about it. An extra sentence of topical news about the individual's life adds a personal touch."
You have e-thanks
Speaking of time, the etiquette experts agree there are some circumstances where an e-mailed thank-you may stand in for the handwritten one.
"Handwritten notes are always best," cautions Stevens, "but if you have a familiar relationship with someone and often correspond via e-mail, then you can get away with it."
Bryant notes that in instances where all correspondence between two individuals only happens by e-mail, an e-mailed thank-you is generally appropriate.
"But for big presents or big thank-yous, nothing beats a handwritten letter," she says.
Barrett cites an example of an occasion wherein an e-mailed thank-you would be acceptable: "When your grandmother sends you a check for Christmas, you might e-mail a note right away that you've received it so she doesn't worry." As do Stevens and Bryant, Barrett urges a handwritten note of thanks as a follow-up.
"E-mail and e-cards save money and some say they save trees by not sending a thank-you note through the postal service, but I think that handwritten thank-you notes are more important than ever. People are impressed when they get a personal note. A personal note makes you stand out from the crowd. It's tangible, can be reread, put on the refrigerator, and saved.
"People rarely save e-mail thank-you notes."
Barrett says the handwritten thank-you note is an act of showing gratitude and appreciation, feel-good felicities that may even help us spiritually.
"When you actually sit down and compose those thank-you notes, you feel so much better--much more so than when you send it by e-mail."
Bonnie Browning couldn't agree more. The executive show director at the American Quilter's Society goes beyond paper and pen to inscribe her thank-you notes, typically mailed after she has been hosted for dinner or as a houseguest. Her medium: the quilted word on fabric postcard. Browning prints photos she has snapped of her host's home or garden on fabric that can be pieced or appliqued. She then quilts them.
"What better thank-you from a quilter than a quilted fabric postcard?"
The back side of Browning's creation looks just like a postcard and can be written upon.
"They cost a bit more to mail than a regular postcard and the post office is always intrigued with them," she says.
"The ones with dogwoods always sell well, but I take photos of the Ohio River, different statues or buildings, the gazebo downtown, and other tourist attractions.
"It's fun to get one in the mail."
And, as Barrett likes to say, "The envelopes that get opened first are always the handwritten ones."
As obvious as the need or occasion might be for pressing a thank-you note into service, it is a misunderstood creature.
Barrett says many resist writing thank-you notes because of a misconception that they must be a good writer.
"Thank-you notes can be very simple," she stresses. "They are easiest done at the time you get the gift or right after the event."
Barrett suggests creating a space for the purpose of writing thank-you notes--a special desk or table equipped with note cards, pens, and stamps. Half an hour to an hour, depending on the need, may be set aside each week for composing these communiques, or they can be written up as each occasion arises.
"If I've been to someone's home and come home and sit down right then and there and write my thank-you note, I know the tone is going to sound so much more enthusiastic and sincere," says Barrett. "You're going to remember some special detail that impressed you that you can include in your note. If you wait a week or so, you forget these details."
Adds Bryant: "There is a misunderstanding that writing thank-you notes can be very time-consuming, but when someone has taken the time for you, you can take a few minutes to put pen to paper."
Mail some heartfelt happiness
"There's nothing quite like going to the mailbox and finding a handwritten note there," says Lexington freelance writer Robin Roenker, who writes frequently for Kentucky Living. "That's when you know someone has really taken the time to put their thoughts on paper with care."
Roenker, an inveterate card sender from childhood (even before she could read or write), cut her teeth on homemade birthday and holiday greeting cards for family, which transitioned into crafting short thank-you notes for birthday and Christmas gifts on a variety of stationery, including her favorite: a Snoopy set "reserved for the most special notes of all." Today, Roenker continues the tradition learned at her mom's knee, using a simple ivory card stock embossed with her name for her thank-you notes.
"For me, writing thank-you notes is just a very simple way to make concrete and known my appreciation for someone's act of kindness," she says. Roenker always sends a thank-you note when she completes her Kentucky Living writing assignments as a way of making sure it's known how much she appreciates not only the work but the enjoyment of the assignment.
"It's easy to say thank you or even e-mail a thank-you--and those are both nice ways to show gratitude. But there's nothing quite like going to the mailbox and finding a handwritten note there. That's when you know someone has really taken the time to put their thoughts on paper with care. And I like knowing I'm sending that feeling to someone else."
Roenker likes to receive thank-you notes as much as she likes sending them, and keeps a special file for cards she wishes to save.
"Every now and then, I'll read through them and it's always an uplifting thing. That's another wonderful thing about thank-you notes, as opposed to verbal thank-yous or e-mailed thank-yous: they last, and they can be read and enjoyed again and again."
THANK YOU DO'S AND DON'TS
Some words of wisdom on the topic of writing thank-you notes:
* Send a note when someone has done you a favor, given you a gift, hosted you for dinner, or had you in their home for a weekend visit.
"It's also very nice to send a thank-you note when it's not expected," says Barrett, citing examples of showing written appreciation to someone who goes beyond the call of duty or makes a contribution to the community.
* Start on a positive note:
Say thank you.
* Make a draft of your thank-you note
"Before you take out your good note card, write a rough draft on scrap paper so you don't waste paper," she advises.
* Be complimentary
"Thank you, the sweater is my favorite color." And if you don't like the color? "Thank you for remembering me."
* Say something about how the gift will be used
"If it's a check, mention it will be used toward college or your books. If it's a gift, let the giver know that the color will look really good in your home. For boxes of fruit that come during the holidays, note that this is your favorite fruit."
* Don't send a sloppy note with words scratched out.
* Don't complain about the gift or imply you're not happy with it.
A final piece of advice on the protocol front: "If you ever have any questions about whether you should offer a courtesy, then do offer it," says Barrett. "And that includes sending the handwritten thank-you note."
SHARPEN YOUR ETIQUETTE SKILLS
Have a question about writing thank-you notes? Feel the need to sharpen your social skills or professional poise? Try these sources for questions of etiquette and for learning about seminars, workshops, and programs on the topic of etiquette:
Marja Barrett www.marjabarrett.com
Barrett's book, Business Manners for Success, which includes chapters on "Techno-etiquette" and "Letter Writing to Thank, Acknowledge and Build Rapport," is available through her Web site and at the Kentucky Haus store in Newport. Barrett also offers workshops and classes on dining etiquette, business manners, executive etiquette, effective client entertaining, self-presentation skills, communication skills, and international business manners and customs.
Debrett's Online www.debretts.com
Debrett's has published two recent titles on etiquette: Debrett's Etiquette for Girls, by Fleur Britten, and Debrett's Manners for Men: What Women Really Want, by E. Jane Dickson. The books are available through Debrett's Web site, Amazon.com, and major bookstores. Its online Everyday Etiquette column features Debrett's resident mistress of etiquette dropping her pearls of wisdom on "all the most pressing issues of contemporary life."
Peggy Noe Stevens www.peggynoestevens.com
Stevens offers both professional and lifestyle workshops and seminars on topics like "Professional Image and Style," "Business Etiquette and Protocol," and "Building Your Brand," among many other topics. Information is available on her Web site.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: FUN THANK-YOU NOTE PROJECTS
Teaching children at an early age to write thank-you notes is a very important life lesson, which Marja Barrett teaches in classes. Or make your own quilt thank-you cards with step-by-step directions from Bonnie Browning. Go to Fun thank-you note projects to find out how.