The Gift of Gratitude: Getting the Hang of Thank-You Notes

(A post in honor of Mary Robinette Kowal and the Month of Letters)

Dear Friends,

Here we are, about to launch another Month of Letters. For the first time, we are setting sail with a new captain (or two), and we owe a shipload of gratitude to Cooksterz and Ronda for taking the helm. But I want to dedicate this post to Mary Robinette Kowal, the one who built the boat and took us on as crew. It’s been a marvelous voyage so far and we’ll keep cruising through these Februaries, thanks to Mary, who is still providing us all with her support and the means to keep the site and community viable and vibrant.

~~~

My Great-Aunt Lillie was a champion of the thank-you note. She expected us to have one in the mail the moment her letter or parcel was relinquished to her local post office. And once she had received our cards, she wrote us thank-you notes for the thank-you notes we had sent to her. There are still a number of Aunt Lillies in this world, but for many of us, the thought of writing a thank-you note causes anxiety and cold sweats. It needn’t. The art of writing thank-you notes is an easy skill to acquire, and I am here to share the secret formula.

I think most of us want our letters of appreciation to sound gracious and heartfelt, but let’s face it — most thank-you notes are stilted and sound insincere.

Dear Tia Esperanza,

            Thank you for the nice socks.

Love,
Jose

We can do better, and without tearing out our hair. We don’t even have to use the words “thank you” — some people even maintain that one ought not employ them. The basic thank-you note has six parts that will result in a decent missive of gratitude that does not sound grasping, but does come off as thoughtful.

  • The date
  • The greeting
  • An initial expression of gratitude that does NOT include the words “thank you”
  • A comment on the object or act for which one must express thanks
  • A final expression of gratitude
  • An appropriate closing

That said, I should mention that my mother once received a one-word thank-you from a somewhat pretentious friend of the family that read merely, “Magnifiqué!” But generally, a thank-you message should go something like this:

 

Date

Dear Aunt Lillie,

I was so pleased to receive the letter you sent in response to my thank-you note. I am always amazed at how much family history you are able to pack into only five or six pages. The story about my grandfather was very amusing, and I am so happy that you shared it with me. I send this with

Love,
Ruth*

A slightly more formal example might read like this:

Stardate

Dear Mr. Kenobi,

Running into you in the desert the other day was a real delight. We should do it again soon. And I certainly was not expecting you to entrust my father’s old light saber to me. I can’t imagine a more meaningful gift. I’ve put it on the coffee table; it’s a real conversation starter.

R2 and C3PO send their regards and ask whether you will come for tea next Tuesday? Allow me to add my voice to theirs, and to say, once again, how pleased I am to have the saber. I am

Deeply grateful,
Luke Skywalker

One to a good friend can be more casual:

Sometime in the Recent Past

Dear Bruce,

I just had to dash off this note to tell you how much I love the shorts. Where did you find something so trendy with that artful distressed look? With the right suspenders, I’ll be able to wear them with everything.

I’m looking forward to seeing you at dinner this weekend. Tony says to ask if the Hulk will play on our team for the volleyball game.

Thanks again for the shorts. They’re just smashing.

Love,
Pepper

Remember that even if your note is short and follows a form, it can still be sincere. The point is to let the person who gave you the lurid socks or who wrote the glowing letter of recommendation for you know that you received the gift or are aware of the effort and appreciate the thought and time that was expended on your behalf. (It doesn’t matter whether you really appreciate the socks or not; while you are writing the note, you do.)

A final admonition regarding thank-you notes: unless you have a true disability that precludes holding a pen (and some of us do), thank-you notes should be written by hand, on paper, and sent through the mail. All the e-mails in the world will not take the place of a holograph missive composed in the most legible script the writer can muster. Handwriting still conveys a personal communication that nothing else can match.

So let’s practice. Take a moment and think of

  • Two people who have a
  • Relationship, and an
  • Object given by one to the other

For example: two guys, cousins, and an invitation:

Prehistory

Dear Noah,

Dude! You always have the best ideas for our family re-unions. A cruise sounds awesome, but the whole animal theme doesn’t work for me — my allergies to fur, dander, and hay are way too gnarly. But you have a great time and tell me about it when you get back. But I really appreciate the invite — I can always count on you to keep me afloat.

Don’t worry about me. I heard there are some killer waves coming our way, so I’ll be on my board, thinking of you stuck on that boat with the fam and critters. But, Dude, I am still, like,

Totally grateful,
Lamech III

(There’s a discussion about gratitude and thank-you letters here. Do share any good notes you compose, if you are comfortable doing so.)

Here’s another way to get some practice. On page fifty of Write Back Soon!** there’s an article entitled “Three Hundred Sixty-Five Thank Yous.” It tells about John Kralik who, at a low point in his life, spent a year writing a thank-you note every day and managed to turn his life around. I’m not suggesting that if we all write a note of gratitude every day that all our problems will miraculously melt away. But doing so will probably make us much better thank-you letter writers.

So here’s what I hope will be the first of many expressions of gratitude that I make during this Month of Letters, and my last offering in this post:

29 January 2018

Dear Mary,

I never foresaw how much the Month of Letters would come to mean to me. I’m not very good at keeping up with answering letters from Letter Monthers the rest of the year, but every February I feel connected to the world in a way that sustains me through the other eleven months. The Month of Letters community is an incredible gift that you gave us all, and I am proud to help continue what you started.

I also want to let you know that your courage and honesty about your depression have made it easier for me to be upfront about mine. That you were able to ask us to help you now when you need to take care of yourself is also admirably brave and I honor you for it. You are an inspiration in so many ways, and for that I am

Profoundly grateful,
Ruth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* I should be clear that Aunt Lillie was one of my favourite relatives and I genuinely treasure the several letters I have from from her containing some very interesting perspectives on family history.

** Karen Benke, Write Back Soon! (Boston: Roost Books, 2015).

Ruth Feiertag is the owner of PenKnife Writing and Editorial Services (http://www.penknife-editing.net), the Senior Editor for Regal House Publishing (https://regalhousepublishing.com), and an independent scholar who writes about Medieval and Early Modern English Literature.

6 thoughts on “The Gift of Gratitude: Getting the Hang of Thank-You Notes”

  1. I send my heartfelt gratitude to Mary for the inspiration and creation of Lettermo too ! I have found the best of Letter Writers here! It sustains me, my hobbies and my passions as well. I could also fill a jar (ok barrel) full of Thank You notes , I should have written. It is never too late to start! Such a wonderful post and article Ruth! Thank you! I just love the note examples! The Luke Skywalker thank you to Obi Wan, with that formal Kenobi address! Big Smile!! R2D2 Sounds :))

  2. Oh my Ruth!
    Such fun letters – they sure made me smile 😀
    I have to get over my own mental block of delaying sending Thank You notes because I tend to get paralysed by fear if they might not be perfect. I figure if I use your guide to remind me of the basics, I’ll get over myself and get them sent out. I have a number of Thank You’s on my February list so some I *will* get some out for certain.
    Thank you. Merci. Grazie. Gracias.
    Irene

    1. Irene,

      To be honest, I have the same hang-up. I also worry that if I don’t gush for pages that I’ll come off as being insincere. Thank-you notes are often very meaningful to the recipients, so I do try to change them up so they sound fresh to me as well as to the person I’m writing.

      Let us know how your notes come out!

      Ruth

  3. Ruth,

    I love that you shared your Aunt Lillie with us! Thank you notes are such a great way to be inspired if I am finding my LetterMo recipient list a little thin. A teacher, a neighbor, a family member, and friend. I’ve written thank you notes far after the fact to friends who have supported me during rough patches — letting them know how much their support mattered to me.

    As a small person, I was expected to write thank you notes. I’ve always loved stationery and note writing, so I saw this as a wonderful excuse to put pen to paper, but I think lots of folks are introduced to thank you notes as an anxiety producing child’s duty.
    It took awhile to be on the receiving end of a thank you note — maybe not until I was seven or eight — its author was sincere and appreciative and the note made me feel wonderful for picking the right gift. Since that time, I have been a devoted gratitude note writer. In fact, I would not allow myself to enjoy a birthday or Christmas gift until I wrote a note of gratitude.
    There’s been a delightful theme in letter writing for a few years now that I’ve noticed — taking the attitude of gratitude and putting it down on paper to send to the person who made it happen. Last year during LetterMo, I wrote notes of appreciation to my vet and hygienist. Both mentioned how surprised they were — and how fun it was to receive something unexpected.

    I love gratitude notes because there’s no expectation of a reply. It’s a little gift we can give someone.

    Thank you for reminding me to ask myself “Who can I thank this month?”

  4. I’ve read this engaging piece twice now and love it even more. Lamech III cracks me up.

    On a related note, our NPR affiliate is reminding listeners to give thanks every day, to rewire our brains into a happier state. I think dashing out real notes of gratitude and popping them into a mailbox every day is a brilliant connection.

    To learn more about how “gratitude can be a natural anti-depressant,” here’s a terrific article: (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/emily-fletcher/the-neuroscience-of-gratitude_b_8631392.html)

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