Friday, May 20, 2011

The Thank-You Card: A Lovely, Gracious Tradition

Yesterday I went out to the mailbox and there was a literally a handful of thank-you cards from friends who went to our wine and appetizer party this past weekend or came over for other recent get-togethers. I sure didn’t expect all those cards! But it sure was nice to receive them.

It got me thinking about the whole idea of sending out thank-you notes. Again, I never “expect” them after we host a party. If guests tell me during the dinner that they like the food, or say “thanks for a wonderful evening” when they’re leaving, to me, they’ve covered their bases in terms of showing appreciation…at least in my book. If they mail out a thank you card a couple days later, that’s like doing “extra credit” on a school assignment. It’s not required, but it makes me feel “extra appreciated.”

The etiquette books all say a thank-you card is not required when you go to dinner at someone’s home unless you are the guest of honor. But most of them seem to concur that it’s always a nice gesture. Mailing out a thank-you card (or emailing—for those of you who don’t use pen and paper anymore!) is a way to show gratitude for hospitality that’s been bestowed upon you. If the hosts are the least bit shy, nervous or inhibited about having people over, sending them a thank-you card is an ideal way to encourage them to do it again, and let them know they did a great job.

Certainly if you’ve received a wedding, shower, birthday, graduation or other gift, flowers while you were sick or after the birth of your baby, if someone did you a big favor, or if you’ve been an overnight guest in someone’s home, a thank you card is not only a “nice” thing to do, but most etiquette books say it’s a “definitely should do” kind of thing. I agree.

But what do you put in your thank-you card? What if you have “writer’s block” when it comes to composing thank-you cards? Here’s a basic outline of what you need to include:

1. Address the giver.

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Miller," or "Dear Emily,”

Make sure you include a salutation. Your card may seem impersonal without addressing the person/people you’re writing to.

2. Say thanks and note exactly what you are thanking the person for.

“Thank you for monogrammed towels. They were such a lovely wedding gift!”
“Thank you so much for the espresso machine.”
“Thanks so much for bringing us that delicious lasagna dinner the day after I got home from the hospital.”
“It was so thoughtful of you to send us the anniversary flowers!”
“Thank you so much for helping us out on moving day!”

Be as specific. Don’t just say “Thanks for the gift” or “Thanks for the meal.” State specifically what you are thanking the person for. The exception is if you are thanking someone for money. Don’t state how much money the person gave you, nor mention “cash” directly; simply say “Thank- you for your generosity” or “Thank-you for the monetary gift.”

Make sure you’re accurate in what you’re thanking the person for. This is especially important if you’re sending out thank-you notes for a lot of gifts you received after a wedding, shower or graduation party. It might sound like a no-brainer, but make sure you are putting the right gift with the right giver. My husband and I have actually received thank-you cards before for someone else’s gift—and that person was probably thanked for the gift we gave! Another time I put about 10 small—but elegant and specially-selected—wedding gifts inside a very large box that an appliance once came in. About six months later, we got a thank-you card in the mail for the appliance. The couple hadn’t even opened the box—even though I had written on the outside of the box with a black Sharpie marker, “GIFT IS NOT THE APPLIANCE.” It doesn’t make the giver feel like you really valued the gift if you don’t even open the box to see what's inside.

Also, make sure you’re not overlooking something. If your aunt gave you both a set of goblets and a crystal platter for a wedding gift, don’t mention just one of them. Note both items she gave you.

One thank-you faux pax that my husband were once the recipient of is we received a thank you card for coming to a couple’s wedding, but there was no mention of the gift that we gave. The very brief note just said “Thanks for joining us on our special day.” Well, it was nice to know they were glad we came. However, there was no acknowledgement of the gift we gave them. We couldn’t help but wonder….did the couple not receive the gift? Was the gift misplaced? Did they open the gift and threw away the attached card with the wrapping paper—without first opening the card? We didn’t know the couple well enough to ever ask them if they got our gift, but we always wondered.

3. State how much the gift, kind gesture or dinner get-together means to you. If it’s a gift, note how you plan to use it, or how you have already been using it.

“We have been using that espresso machine every day since we’ve been home from our honeymoon.”
“Our new baby will look beautiful going to church in that beautiful pink dress!”
“We really enjoyed the barbecue at your house. We’ve been so busy at work; it was a much-needed respite for us!”
“Those flowers you had delivered to me brightened up my whole week!”
“If it wasn’t for you, we’d still be unloading boxes from the moving truck!”
“That apple pie you brought by was one of the best pies we’ve ever tasted!

This is typically the longest section of the thank-you note—usually around 2 to 5 sentences. The sample sentences above are how you would start out, and then you’d elaborate further with 2 to 4 additional sentences (or more—depending on how big of a gesture you are thanking someone for—and whether or not you are a pithy person!). For most people, this is the hardest section of the thank-you card to write. It doesn’t have to be. Simply state how the person’s gift or actions improved your life, made you feel good, helped you out, or eased your situation. People like to know that they’ve been a help and that what they have done has made you happy. Be sure to tell them!

It’s important to be sincere. Don’t use extreme statements (“That was the best meal I’ve ever tasted!”) just to flatter others, especially if you don’t really mean it. Don’t say something just because you think you’re expected to say it. If you really didn’t like the gift or the meal that your friends brought by when you were sick, don’t say that you loved it. If you’re not “in” to games and really didn’t like playing charades for three hours when you were invited over to the Jones’ home, you don’t have to—and shouldn’t—say that you really enjoyed playing charades. But even in these circumstances, there’s sure to be something you can genuinely thank the givers for—at the very least, that they were thoughtful enough to invite you over to their home, or that they were kind enough to cook a meal for you when you really needed it.

4. Additional thoughts to include—when appropriate

If you are close to the giver, you could respond by expressing your gratitude for having the person in your life:

“We’re so grateful you’re our friends.”
“We’ve really enjoyed getting to know you since we moved here.”
“We’re so thankful you were able to come to our wedding, and look forward to having you over to our home sometime soon.”

If you're thanking someone for a wedding or mail-delivered gift and you don’t know the giver that well—perhaps the giver was your husband’s great aunt who you haven’t seen in a decade, the business associate or friend of your parents, an old friend you haven’t seen in 20 years and haven’t stayed in close contact with—you should still make some kind of statement expressing appreciation for them as an individual person. You could say something like:

“It was nice seeing you at the wedding. Hopefully we’ll see you again sometime soon.”
“It was great catching up with you after all these years.”
“I think about you, and hope all is going well for you.”
“I’ve often wondered how you are doing, and am happy to know you are doing well.”

5. Restate your appreciation.

“Thank you again for having us over and making us feel so special.”
“Thanks again for such a thoughtful gift.”
“Thanks again for thinking of us.”

6. Closing

Best wishes,
So long for now,

Use whatever closing you are comfortable with. Obviously, this will depend a lot on whether you are writing to a relative, close friend, acquaintance, friend of your parents or business associate.

Some other tips:

There’s no set length for thank you cards. Short and sweet is fine as fine as long as your words are sincere and from the heart—and you are covering all the bases discussed above. I’ve received—and written—thank-you cards that did that in as few as 4 or 5 sentences.

Hand-written notes are preferred over typing them. (A typed thank-you letter usually seems too impersonal!) For most purposes, the standard thank-you note cards (which are blank on the inside) available at card shops and dollar stores work fine. The only exception is for a wedding gift, when you probably want to go with more formal stationery.

Don’t worry if your handwriting is a little on the sloppy side. Like most people these days, 99.99 percent of my communication is electronic. When I get out a paper and pen to write a grocery list or card, my fingers aren’t used to forming those cursive letters. I’m totally out of practice! Probably a lot of people are. None of us probably write as neatly anymore as how we were taught in elementary school. The recipient of your thank-you card doesn't care about that. He or she will just be touched you took the time to write out something by hand.

For some people, one reason they may not send out thank-you cards is that having to go down to the card shop to look an appropriate note card is one more errand to try to fit into their already-busy lives. What I do is keep a supply of thank-you and plain note cards on hand. I have a large plastic storage box that I keep them in (along with get well and sympathy cards), which I store in a closet. This way, I don’t have to make a special trip to the store to buy a thank-you card; I’ve already got a nice selection to choose from right at home. So next time you’re at the card shop, grocery store or discount store, you might want to pick up a couple packages of thank-you cards—just to have them on hand.

What about sending electronic thank-you notes? I know some people don’t like them. Personally, I think they’re okay for most situations—especially if the recipient is one who communicates almost exclusively online. (The only exception is for wedding gift thank-yous, which should be on formal note cards.) Again, if your words are expressing sincere gratitude and you’re writing from the heart, any media they are delivered in—snail mail or electronically—will be appreciated by the receiver. I have received email thank-you notes and ecard thank-yous from sites like that were just as special to me as the “hard copy” thank you notes I received in the mail.

Finally, what about timing? Emily Post and other etiquette experts say thank-you cards for wedding gifts should be sent within three months after the wedding. All other thank-you notes—for birthday, baby and shower gifts, after someone’s done you a favor, or after you’ve been to someone’s home for dinner or as an overnight houseguest, should be done within a week of receiving the gift or favor.

But the old adage holds true: “Better late than never.” Even if it’s been six months or a year since your wedding, you can still send out thank-you letters for the gift. You could start out by saying something like, “We’ve regretted not sending you a thank you sooner….”

That is a whole lot better than not sending a thank you at all. Unfortunately, fewer people today seem to be sending out thank-you notes, even after receiving wedding gifts, which is a “definitely should do” kind of thing. It’s not just something I’ve observed; others have noticed this trend too, and have brought up this topic in recent conversations.

One other situation when a thank you card (or even a thank you email or phone call) definitely should be sent is with long-distance gifting: a gift that was mailed, or a flower arrangement that was wired and delivered. I’ve sent these kinds of gifts and waited several days or a week after I know the recipient was supposed to have received what I sent and I never heard anything from them. In this case a thank-you card is nice not only to show gratitude, but also to let the sender of the gift know that you actually received the gift. I don’t always trust technology that the order for flowers I bought online actually was actually processed and delivered to the intended recipient. And unfortunately, a lot of mail seems to get lost in transit. It’s nice to have the confirmation that the gift I sent was actually received.

In summary, the thank-you note is a lovely, gracious tradition. True, it may be a lot harder nowadays to get around to sending them in our busy, fast-paced, electronically- and deadline-driven world. However, maybe it’s because we’re living in a busy, fast-paced, electronically- and deadline-driven world, that the thank-you note may be appreciated now more than ever. A thank-you card—or any personalized, hand-written note—sure brings a smile to my face. I know it does for others as well.

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