Is the art of the thank you note long gone or alive and well? I interviewed Daniel Post Senning, the great-great grandson of Emily post to find out. This article is in the January 2013 issue of the State College Magazine.
“Grandmothers complained to my grandmother about thank you notes,” says Daniel Post Senning.
As co-author of the 18th edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, and great-great-grandson of Emily Post, he’s got an informed perspective on manners. Today, he and the younger generation of Posts, seven in all, run The Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., which according to its website operates as a “social civil barometer.”
Is the civility barometer rising or falling? What better time to consider this question than at the beginning of a new year—a time of renewal and introspection, following the season of gifts and parties, especially with respect to the art of the handwritten thank you note.
“Good manners never go out of style, but etiquette practices adapt to cultural trends. And technology has changed the way we say thank you,” says Senning.
He’s not worried that texting, tweeting and emailing have cheapened our expressions of gratitude. “It’s all about balance,” he says.
If people post on your Facebook page wishing you a happy New Year filled with good health and good friends, it’s fine to update your status with a hasty, “thanks for the good wishes.” The senders didn’t invest much time, and you don’t have to either. And, if it’s a large office group gift, it’s okay to write one handwritten note to all your co-workers. But if someone shops for a present, wraps it and gives it to you with a card, it’s time to get out the stationery.
“The handwritten thank you note is an important gesture of gratitude, and the medium becomes part of the message.” It takes more effort, but it’s often the proper thing to do.
Two times when the thank you should be handwritten, according to Senning, is after a job interview and after a meal has been provided. He suggests thinking of the thank you as providing a powerful opportunity to distinguish yourself from others by demonstrating good manners and communication skills.
As an example, he mentions that each year The Emily Post Institute hires interns. They have many more applicants than they have positions. “The first cut-off is easy; we eliminate for consideration all those who don’t write thank you notes for the interview,” says Senning. “You’d think that for a position like this everyone would write one, but it doesn’t happen.”
In considering why we should express gratitude to those who touch us with their generosity, we often “lack a totality of vision,” Senning says. “Self-interest and altruism can overlap.”
It has been said that the Posts are “gene-etiquette-ly” superior to most of us, so it may surprise you to know that even Senning didn’t always see the total picture. “I’m pretty typical in that my mother taught me to write thank you notes, but at some point in my early adult years, I fell away from the practice,” he says. “One of our core principles at our institute is honesty, so I found that I needed to follow my own advice.“
When he did, he noticed something profound. “The simple gesture of gratitude has the power to improve our relationships and make us more appreciative of our own lives.”
Writing thank you notes makes you more mindful of the good things you already have and may even make you happier. It also positively reinforces a behavior from someone that is beneficial to you and may result in your receiving more gifts and opportunities.
Senning points to John Kralik’s book, A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life to explain. It’s a chronicle of the author’s yearlong focus on being appreciative. Kralik is depressed because of failed relationships with his family and friends. He has financial worries because his law firm is losing money. In his hopelessness, he takes a walk and gets advice from an inner voice. It tells him the key to becoming joyful again is to learn to be grateful for the things he already has. Over the next year, each day, he practices being grateful by finding something that merits a handwritten thank you note, and he writes it. It was transformative. Senning acknowledges he experienced something similar when he came back into the habit of writing thank you notes.
With all this to gain, why don’t people write more thank you notes? We don’t make it super convenient for ourselves is one reason, according to Senning. He recommends that we have stationery and postage on hand, both in the office and at home.
For some, it may be difficult to overcome the apprehension of not writing well enough. Free yourself of the notion you have to write something worthy of the Nobel Prize for literature. Senning suggests concentrating on three points: say, “thank you for” and mention the gift, dinner, job interview or opportunity you’ve been given. Next add the details. Expand by personalizing it. Tell how you’ll use the gift, how tasty the dinner was or mention what you learned in the job interview. But don’t mention the amount of money if you’re given cash or a check; it’s crass. Close by alluding to the future, such as how you’re looking forward to using the fluffy slippers the next cold morning, or visiting again at the family reunion, or in the case of an interview, hearing from the prospective employer. It’s okay to repeat the “thank you” once more in the closing. Add a warm greeting at the beginning, and a polite closing at the end, and you’re done.
Length is up to you. Senning says it can be as short as three sentences or as long as it takes for you to feel like you’ve adequately expressed your gratitude. If your handwriting is indecipherable, he recommends typing it, but “there is something to the handwritten note that makes it more personal.”
Two of the more difficult thank you note questions Senning is asked are what to do if someone writes to you after the death of a loved one and what to write when you don’t feel thankful.
If you receive a handwritten note from someone expressing sympathy on your loss, it’s proper to respond with a handwritten note expressing gratitude for the sentiment. You shouldn’t assume that because you’re in mourning, you don’t have to respond. If you just don’t have the wherewithal to write back, Senning recommends asking a family member or friend to help you.
And what about when you really don’t feel grateful, what do you do? What if your best friend helps you make wonderful food for a holiday party, but then gets so obnoxiously drunk he embarrasses you by trying to pick up your married boss?
Senning stresses that honesty is important. He suggests that you find something you like. “Operate from sincerity. When people aren’t honest, it destroys relationships and is offensive.
“You might say thank you for your friendship for the past 10 years. Human attention is a gift in itself. Remember, someone who shares time with you is giving a part of herself. You can be thankful for this. But if you really can’t find something, then don’t write it.”
For all of us who have the best intentions but never get around to writing the thank you, the question becomes: when has too much time passed?
“Better late than never,” he responds.