Let’s Bring Back the Thank You Note

April 7, 2020 Updated: April 7, 2020

A retired teacher meets a former student, learns she is discouraged about her life, takes down her address, and mails her a copy of Charles Murray’s “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead.” A woman works 12 hours a day from her home, writing memos and editing reports sent to her by her supervisor, trying her best to keep the company afloat in this time of quarantine. A husband and wife struggling to pay their rent are given $1,000 by a friend’s father.

So what do the teacher, the secretary, and the friend’s father share in common?

None of them receives a thank you note.

The retired teacher never hears a word back from the student. The supervisor stops by the young woman’s desk when the office reopens and offers a word of appreciation. The husband and wife text a brief thanks to their benefactor.

Words on Paper Work Best

Thank you notes for all sorts of gifts—money and presents, advice, help of some kind—were once commonplace. The recipients put pen to paper, wrote out their letters, thanked the givers, explained how they would put the gift to use, and popped the note into the mail.

Given our age of high technology, a note of thanks sent through the post office has likely gone the way of the Remington Electric Typewriter and landline telephones. Few people write letters of any kind these days, corresponding instead via the Internet or by cell phone.

This is unfortunate, as receiving a personal letter in a mailbox is rare and an event to be celebrated. This past New Year’s, for example, I resolved to send letters to two of my grandchildren every week—I have a multitude of them—and from toddlers to teens, this gang delights in getting their own special message from Grandpa in the mail.

So a written or typed thank you, even one delivered by hand to a co-worker or a note left on the bed pillow of your spouse, is a special event. Those words on paper tell the recipients you cared enough about the gift to set some time aside, write out your thoughts, and put a stamp on an envelope.

Alternatives

The next best course is to send an email of gratitude. Here again, the person you are writing will be happy to hear from you and will appreciate your gesture.

Even a phone call can work. Recently, I missed sending a birthday present to an 8-year-old grandson. After about a week, I realized my mistake, ordered him a child’s tool belt with real tools from Amazon—I had noticed how much he liked hammering nails into boards on my last visit—and received an excited call from him three days later. “So did the tool belt fit?” I asked. “I haven’t tried it on yet, Grandpa,” he said. “I wanted to call you first and thank you.”

The excitement in that kid’s voice brings a smile every time I think about him and that tool belt, and in this particular case beats a written note any day of the week.

Of course, some gifts don’t oblige us to write such notes. No one in my family gives formal thanks for gifts exchanged at Christmas. Most birthday presents may receive a thank you in person or via phone. Intimacy and the occasion preclude a formal gesture of gratitude.

In most circumstances, however, the thank you note allows us to deepen our connection with another person. After some special dinner or party, following a job interview, or when we receive a promotion at work: these are ideal occasions to show our gratitude for the thoughtfulness of others. Sometimes, too, we can write to those who have given the gift of themselves: our parents and grandparents for their guidance; siblings, other relatives, or friends for their love and fidelity; a coach or mentor who has touched our children’s lives; the neighbor who stepped up to the plate and babysat our children while our spouse was ill.

Some Suggestions and Guidelines

For those who find writing a grocery list, much less a letter, burdensome, please know there is plenty of online help. In “Thoughtful Wording for a Thank You Note,” for instance, Debby Mayne offers some helpful tips, even giving her readers specific wording to use in their letters. She takes us step-by-step through this process, reminding us that in such notes we should express our gratitude, mention specifically the gift we received, and describe how we intend to use it or how it benefited us.

That last point is key. It is important we tell others not only of our gratitude, but whenever possible also explain why that gift, whatever it was, meant so much to us. After my wife died in 2004, and until her death last year, my mother-in-law sent me a check every year for my birthday. That money was always needed, and when I wrote her back, I made sure to describe exactly how it would be used: college tuition for some of my children, repairs on my Honda, visits to the dentist, and so on.

These notes can be short and to the point. Recently, I learned that the newspaper for which I write book reviews is struggling to keep the doors open. The paper depends on advertisers for its revenues, and the pandemic had panicked them into reducing or eliminating their advertising. To help out my friends at the paper, I sent a small donation and received back a brief reply from the editor expressing his gratitude and telling me he would use the money to help meet the payroll. To hear that from him, to know that in some small way my money might help people I’d known for years, was gratifying.

The Radiance of Gratitude Expressed

Though we should try to write such notes within a few days of receiving a gift, it’s really never too late to write and express our gratitude to someone. In my mid-40s, when I was teaching homeschooling seminars, I wrote to my ninth-grade English teacher, with whom I hadn’t communicated since I was 14, to thank him for some of the projects he had assigned us and to tell him I was introducing similar projects into my classroom. He sent back a delightful note of encouragement about teaching, telling me as well how much my letter had meant to him.

A thank you note may seem a small and even trivial thing, but it lights one more candle in a world often in need of light.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.