The Lost Art of Saying ‘Thank You’

Saying "thank you" with a big smile when you receive a gift or nice gesture may seem adequate enough but it's not. A gentleman always writes a thank you note. In these days of instant communication, it's easy to overlook the act of writing a thank you letter, or feel it's overdoing it. We show you what to say, when to say it, and what to write it on.

You receive a gift. You write a thank you note. Seems obvious, right? I was raised to do a lot of things: Fold my laundry, make my bed, help the elderly cross the street—all things I neglect to do. The one thing I always do? Write a thank you letter.

You might reason that you don’t have to thank everyone for everything. You’d be wrong. You must always thank gift givers, no matter how grandiose or seemingly insignificant the gift. Someone took their time (and/or money) to buy you something. That person thought of you.

Sit back as I knowledge you good: A thank you note is a gift in and of itself. Someone buys you a gift and in return, you give the gift of acknowledgement. If you care about your reputation, you cannot fail to send a thank you note. It is, after all, the one acceptable time in the twenty first century, depending on the grandiosity of the gift—to dust off that old cardboard box of stationery and mail your letter the old fashioned way, like Grandma used to do.

I don’t give a lot of gifts (I don’t like most people enough to buy them things), but when I'm the recipient of a gift, I’m excited and appreciative. I want to relay said excited appreciation.

The Two Types of Thank You Letters

Let’s talk casual—dinner with a buddy. When the check comes, he takes care of the bill. It shouldn’t matter if this guy is your BFF or someone you barely know; a simple “thanks for dinner” works. If you wish to go the extra mile, since it’s dinner with your buddy and not Donald Trump, a follow up text, email or Facebook post (anything more verges on weird), though not mandatory, is a nice gesture.

Let’s talk special events—the wedding of friends you’ve known for a while. Every time you’re together, all they do is talk shit about the Mr. Coffee they stole from a hotel six years ago. You’re shopping and damn if you don’t see the most amazing espresso maker (on sale … but they don’t have to know that).

Now, the wedding has passed and you’re at the grocery store when you bump into the groom’s parents! You never received a thank you note from your friends. Maybe the espresso maker got lost in the mail. Maybe the couple felt they didn’t need to take the time to thank you. Duh, we loved the gift—what’s the point of wasting postage? You small talk the parents and casually ask if the happy couple ever received the espresso maker. Received, the father asks, they love that thing!

Zing! The parents have failed at child rearing. Maybe the note got lost in the mail, so you offer this excuse to spare them from embarrassment. But they know the truth. And if there was ever a time to have written the thank you note, it would have been upon the first use (or second use … okay, third) of the state of the art espresso maker.

I understand wedding culture states you have one year to write thank you notes. But that’s a stupid rule. A lot can happen in a year. Failing to write a note makes you, the happily married couple, appear rude and unappreciative. And, it makes your parents look bad. No one wants that.

Future Gifts

Guess what! The recently married couple had a baby and sent cards announcing the birth of their child. And that guy—you remember the one who gave the expensive espresso maker? Well, he’s not sending a Tickle Me Elmo.

And when that kid turns to his parent’s writer-friend for help on his college essays, has the eighteen year old been properly taught to express his thanks? Or will he, like his parents, who still use that espresso maker, neglect to thank the writer-friend for his editorial eye?

Other than showing appreciation for a gift, a thank you card is acknowledgment that you actually received the gift. Maybe the espresso maker did get lost. You don’t want to be asked if you got the gift—no need to make things awkward.

Of course, if you never heard from the new couple because the espresso maker really did get lost, maybe they’re wondering why you never gave them a gift. You’ve now fallen into the dreaded Why-Didn’t-They-Thank-Me-Why-Didn’t-He-Send-a-Gift Nightmare! May Jerry Seinfeld have mercy on your soul.

In all likelihood, they did receive the gift. And now you know your friends lack the common courtesy or are too preoccupied with their lives to thank you. They rightfully lose out on future awesome gifts.

Some Tips on Making a Good Impression

You’re pretty sure that girl you’re dating is the future Mrs. Whatever-Your-Last-Name-Is. It’s time to meet the in-laws! Problem is, dad is a WWE Superstar, who can kill you with his pinky. After dinner, you write a thank you card (because computers are for geeks and wrestlers are not geeks) expressing how much you enjoyed meeting them. Compliment their daughter and then add a friendly PS: I enjoyed hearing about your classic ’69 Camaro. Offer to help restore the car on one condition: Mrs. WWE Superstar makes her championship meatloaf.

You’re in there like swimwear.

Remember that CEO you met recently? Meeting him was a once in a lifetime opportunity and you wanted to make a good impression. Bust out the stationery and thank the CEO for taking the time to answer your questions. Tell him you will apply his advice and hopefully, one day, you’d be honored to work for him. Keep it brief and professional.

And of course, you would never have been able to meet the CEO if it wasn’t for the friend of a friend who runs an upscale men’s clothing boutique. He gave you a steep discount on a designer suit and made sure your alterations were priority.

It doesn’t matter whether the gift comes with a hefty price tag or a generous favor, you must invest a little bit of time to hand-write a personalized thank you card (email is just too easy). And put a rush on it—the longer you postpone the act of writing a note, the more likely you’ll forget about it. Unless you’re backed up with an influx of birthday, wedding, or baby-shower gifts, try your damndest to say thanks within a month.

What to Say in Your Thank You Note

A thank you letter scratched down with a Bic pen on a folded piece of paper stuffed in an envelope is unacceptable. If you know meaningful gifts will be coming your way, prepare yourself with the write (hah – get it?) tools.

Don’t try to get away with a perfunctory message:

Dear Andy,

Thanks for the espresso maker. Nice to see you at the wedding.

-Kenneth

Take the time to personalize your thank you:

Dear Andy,

We think of you every morning as we our drink coffee. No sluggish days for us! Thank you so much for the state-of-the-art espresso maker. It sure beats our Mr. Coffee.

We’re so glad you could be at our wedding. Now come over for brunch and a great cup of coffee!

Ciao,

Kenneth & Jennifer (Aniston)

Thank You Note Kits

If James Bond wrote you a thank you card, he’d write it on Smythson stationery. So head over to Smythson.com, pick up a simple pack of plain correspondence cards and a felt tip pen. And remember, you’re not a kid. Stay away from the goofy motifs and flashy colors. Less is more.

Also check out Forgetful Gentleman, a line of stationery catering specifically to modern men that features minimalist design with kits starting at $25.

If you're in a real hurry, head on over to Papyrus at your local mall, they have some nice sets, too.

Always send a thank you no matter the occasion. If you don’t thank your buddy for dinner, he may roll his eyes. If you don’t thank your friend for an extravagant wedding gift, he might dismiss you for your lack of courtesy. And if you don’t thank a businessman for his profound advice over a fine steak and bottle of wine, you might kiss that future job goodbye.

Kenneth Suna is a writer and self-employed stock trader who lives in Washington, D.C. His novel, Roman, was recently published. He is the founder of Revolvist.com, an online magazine which features human interest stories and social commentary. Follow him @KennethSuna

97 Comments

  • Reply January 3, 2011

    jcard21

    EXCELLENT article!

    I have adult nieces and nephews who don’t bother to write thank you notes/cards.

  • Reply January 3, 2011

    Jim Bouchard

    GREAT article and VERY important!

    Thank YOU!

    Best thoughts,
    Jim

  • Reply January 4, 2011

    Mark Shuttleworth

    Great article. It’s such a simple thing to do and yet it makes a very good impression. Unfortunately people just forget, or think it’s not important.

    I think that sending a small thank you note, be it for something like a small favour, or an important job interview will set you apart from the pack. And actually sending a letter rather than an email really is a nice touch.

  • Reply January 4, 2011

    Kenneth

    thanks for the comments, guys!

  • Reply January 6, 2011

    Lynda Hilliard

    Kenneth – great article~ I can tell you were raised right!

    Lynda Hilliard (friend of your mom)

  • Reply January 13, 2011

    Loc

    I find even a simple thank you note goes a long way.

    When I applied for a job position, after the interview, I send my boss a thank you letter. I think it was one of the factor of me being hired.

  • Reply August 8, 2011

    Imbraycd

    Great post and great point about the impression you make on others when you remember to sincerely say thank you! As a kid I used to hate sitting down to write my thank you notes after a special occasion, but as an adult, it’s funny to me how astounded some people are when they receive a thank you note from me in the mail. If only this were the social norm! I just wrote about this topic myself on my site, since I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude and kindness recently. There seems to be a bad case of under-appreciation of appreciation going around!

  • Reply February 12, 2012

    Simon

    This article is great. Just wrote my english final on this topic (The lost art of the hand written letter), needless to say, I recieved an A. More people need to realize how meaningful a personalized letter can be and at the very least, well it should be, a common courtesy. Keep writing more great articles like THIS!

    • Reply October 14, 2015

      Lizzie Knell

      Hope you hand-wrote the essay 🙂 Well done, though, it’s an interesting topic.

  • Reply July 23, 2012

    Jeane Mari. Jones

    Wish i had the nerve to send this article to my recently graduated from university 21 year old grandson. He got a job (in his major) in the movie industry but he never sends me an acknowledgement of my gifts and I hate to think how this bad habit will negatively affect his business career.
    This is a great article. It says everything I wish I could say to him.
    91 year old Grandma
    PS His father, my son, is a stickler for thank you notes because I taught him well, but somehow the link got broken.

  • Reply July 23, 2012

    Kenneth

    i have a 91 year old grandma — advice from grandma should always be welcomed 🙂

  • Reply September 14, 2013

    Mismagius

    Yuh huh no. Yeah yeah I know… nostalgia and all that.. but thank you cards are so freaking unessecary. “We think you EVERY MORNING as we drink our coffee. Our lives have been SIMPLY ENRICHED because of this coffee maker you got on sale at target! Ive noticed since I started using the coffee maker my skin has become smoother and my husband’s toe fungus has finally been cured! And because I am just SO GRATEFUL for this coffee maker beyond words, I simply had to express my BOUNDLESS GRATITUDE to you in the form of this written letter, even though I already thanked you in person and its been two months since I received it. Would you care to come over to come over to my house for an awkward coffee so we can exchange even more awkward small talk about our families and the weather?”

    Teehee! Ciao! 😀

    Thletters don’t brighten my day, they are in no means nessecary, and you can almost feel the letter-writer cringing as she wastes time making an overly syrupy card that is clearly no more than a pleasantry rather than sincere.

  • Reply September 14, 2013

    Mismagius

    And “a lost art?” Dear god. Electronic mail is far more convenient, faster, and a lot better for the environment. Calling snail mail a ‘lost ART’ is almost comical. You don’t see anyone getting teary eyed over the ‘lost art’ of pagers, do you? /)_-

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  • Reply August 18, 2014

    Dima

    Now THIS is an article everyone should read! Thanks for the reminder!

  • Reply January 1, 2017

    Baron Kanter

    I just thought to let you know that I have been referencing this article when writing my thank you notes for at least a year now and since, people compliment me on how great my thank you notes are. I guess what I am saying is, I think of you every time I write thank you notes. Thank you so much for the excellent advice, it’s way better than most of the other crap on the internet. Hopefully one day I will provide something of equal value to the interwebs. Have a great day!

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