Thanksgiving! The value of thank you notes

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes 

Has the handwritten thank you letter died a quiet death? If you were hoping the answer is yes, you’re wrong. The value of thank you notes is still significant to people who can help you…

My mother seldom favoured arbitrary rules. I never had a curfew. She didn’t blink when I became vegetarian for several years. She allowed me to wear jeans to family dinners.

There was, however, one rule she always enforced: We had to write thank you notes. How I loathed that rule! I railed and complained. “Why do I have to say this stuff when I talk to these people every week?” I asked. My mother told me she didn’t care and, if I wanted to maintain my TV privileges, I needed to finish the job.

And when I had children myself, I did the same thing, even forcing my son who has dysgraphia to write such missives. (When he started signing them with the letter D, so he wouldn’t have to write out his entire name — Duncan — I relented and allowed him to write his notes by computer rather than by hand.)

In this week of American Thanksgiving (in Canada, we celebrate the day in October), let me share a brief paean to thank you letters.

Thank you letters seldom get the credit they deserve, either personally or professionally — especially in the age of email. Most of us assume that a quick email is more than enough to express our thanks, but here’s why that idea is wrong:

If someone has done you a favour (with, say, an informational or job interview) or spent a lot of time on you (say, taking several hours to cook an elaborate dinner) doesn’t it strike you that a two-minute email doesn’t begin to express the thanks you should offer?

Even looking at it from a “selfish” point of view — say you want the person to hire you or the friend to cook more dinners for you —sincere thank-you letters, ones that jump out and grab your readers by the eyeballs, are going to work to your advantage.

And, here’s the really good news: So few people do this, it’s really easy to become a rock star in the world of thanks.

How to write a thank-you note

Get some nice stationery: You can pick up packets of beautiful thank you cards at stores, but if you’re writing for business reasons then I suggest you invest in some personal stationery. Make sure the paper is heavy, with some rag content in it. Run your hands over the paper; if it includes some cotton it will feel soft and rich. You might also consider getting some correspondence cards. These are flat, heavy cards — usually measuring 4 1/4 x 6 1/2 inches — that you mail in matching envelopes. They can be plain or bordered, depending on your tastes. You can add your name or a small monogram to the top of the card. (Write on one side of the card only. If that’s not enough space, you need a different type of stationery.)

Write by hand, if you can: The act of writing by hand makes the note far more personal and also shows the investment of your time. I very rarely receive cards like this so I remember all of them. If you want people to remember you, write the cards with a beautiful fountain pen. That said, I am also sympathetic to those who are unable to write by hand. My dysgraphic son falls into that category, and so do I. I had several strokes when I was in my 40s and I lost my ability to write without pain. In the interest of reducing pain and increasing legibility, I typically type my notes. That said, for a condolence note, I will always write it by hand.

Be friendly and succinct: This will benefit both you and the recipient. You don’t have to write an essay and your recipient doesn’t have to read one! This will also allow you to get your note into the mail more quickly, which is important. Here is a formula you can use for a personal thank you:

  • Begin with a salutation
  • Express your thanks
  • Discuss your use of the gift (one sentence)
  • Mention one other point
  • Repeat your thanks
  • Sign off

And here’s a formula for a job interview thank you: 

  • Begin with a salutation
  • Thank the person for meeting with you
  • Mention something you liked about the interview or the company
  • Repeat your interest in the job
  • Sign off

What not to do

If you are writing a note for professional reasons (for example, thanks for a job interview) what you don’t say becomes just as important as what you do.

  • Don’t ask for anything; a thank you note is for thanking only
  • Don’t apologize — it’s an interviewer’s job to determine any deficiencies, not yours
  • Don’t sound desperate — everyone prefers positive people
  • Don’t include negative feedback — thanks should never be ambiguous
  • Don’t give generic compliments — being specific will make the thanks feel more sincere
  • Don’t include a sales pitch — this will make your thanks seem inauthentic
  • Don’t delay — send your note within 48 hours

As someone who has written thank you notes for more than 40 years, I can tell you that I’m usually shocked by the people who don’t say thanks (for dinner parties in particular) and I’m delighted by those who do. My friend Greg writes the best thank you letters: warm, personal and on heavy weight paper with a fountain pen.

If you really want to celebrate Thanksgiving, be the kind of person who is remembered for your thanks.

Do you write thank-you notes? Why or why not? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Make What You Say Pay by Anne Miller. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.