The Simple Power of a Thank You Note

There's no time like the present to share your gratitude.

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A group of researchers who devoted themselves to finding out what happens when we thank one another are reporting back with surprising — and heartening — news.

Authors of a study published in Psychological Science asked people to write a short “gratitude letter” to someone who had affected them. They found that the writers overestimated how awkward or insincere those letters might sound — and greatly underestimated the happiness their recipients would feel. The science is in: People are ecstatic to receive thank-you notes. (Seriously. “Ecstatic” was the researchers’ word.)

Don’t be shy about letting someone know they’re appreciated. A small investment of your time is still a very big deal.

When should you give thanks?

This is an easy one. As national etiquette expert Diane Gottsman (author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas) notes, “[a] thank you note is always appropriate when someone gives you a gift or extends a gesture that is thoughtful and kind — [f]or example, a neighbor who mows your lawn while you are out of town, or a friend who brings you a basket of treats when you are feeling under the weather.”

You should be sure to communicate your thanks for “bridal and baby showers, funerals and wedding gifts,” she says. “Regardless of whether you opened your gift in the presence of the giver, a hand-written thank you note for a gift is most appropriate.” Hand-written, you say? More on that in a minute.

When should you send a card, a text or an email?

Photo by: Michael Jastremski

Michael Jastremski

Focus on the person you’re thanking rather than the format of your thanks. If you’re acknowledging someone for an invitation, for example, “your guide should be more about how you feel the host will perceive an email versus [a] letter rather than expediency or efficiency,” Gottsman says.

“A text or a call are perfectly fine for the times when you want to reach out to follow up quickly to let [someone] know you appreciated their efforts” — such as when you meet a friend for lunch and they pick up the tab, or you meet someone for coffee and you want to thank them for their time.

When in doubt, you can’t go wrong by putting pen to paper: “If the event is casual and you received a Paperless Post, a written thank you note is still appropriate to thank them for a gift,” Gottsman explains. “If the format of the invitation is to a fundraiser and you were invited by email, you may respond with the RSVP and [give a] thank you by email, or choose to write a note.”

Okay, what sort of note is appropriate?

Once again, you can’t go wrong by putting pen to paper. While Miss Manners maintained in a 2012 column that “you should seem so overcome by the thoughtfulness involved [in the recipient’s act] that you can hardly wait to set [your words] down on paper” — and that the thanks themselves shouldn't be printed on the card — Gottsman disagrees.

“The words ‘Thank You’ on the front of the note card don’t matter as much as the gesture — I’d rather have a fold-over card with wording than [be] forgotten entirely. The premise is that it feels ‘too easy’ to have thank you written out for you.” What you add to the card is what matters.

Notes feel special, Gottsman says, because of “a person’s handwriting — whether it’s beautiful or chicken scratch. It’s an identifying piece of that person that is familiar and unique only to them. The time spent writing shows a sincerity and effort that a text or email do not convey equally.”

Is it ever too late to send thanks?

In a word, no. “Send a thank you note,” Gottsman says, “and don’t emphasize the time frame in the first sentence. If it [has been] several months, you can say, ‘I love the picture frame you gave us for our wedding and have already displayed it proudly on our mantel. Your thoughtfulness means so much. Please forgive my delay in sending a sincere note of thanks. I hope to see you over the holidays.’”

When should kids write thank-you notes?

Early and often! “When a child is old enough to spell their name and understand they are using good manners to thank someone for a gift,” Gottsman says, the time is right to teach them just how meaningful their thanks will be.

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