Photo by Debra DiPaolo
In the narrowing scheme of social events that still require thank-you notes, weddings remain the Olympic challenge. I had to meet it three years ago, when my husband and I invited 250 guests to our wedding and were faced a couple of weeks later with figuring out various ways to thank a dozen people for what were essentially the same set of bath towels (emphasis on I; one of the first things I learned about my new husband is that he always recuses himself from writing anything on a note card beyond his signature — thank-you, birthday, anniversary, whatever — because he claims to lack inspiration at the most crucial moment. Call it writer co-dependency).
In journalistic terms it meant approaching the same story from different angles, which wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t also have to write all these little stories by hand, on antique ivory card stock that had zero tolerance for ink smudges, damp fingerprints or the slightest evidence that I had done anything other than dash off the thank-you with requisite new-bride vigor. Actually, the whole endeavor was fun for the first couple of hours or so, in which I hit a modest artistic and professional groove in delineating some real differences among towels and toasters and the people who gave them (“Steve: These bath sheets are as big and as beige as my first apartment — you remember it!”).
But after that it swiftly spiraled down to a drudge. Toward the end of what was largely a race to the bottom of the stack, I decided that “Thanks for the wonderful present and take care” was more than adequate — it was handwritten, wasn’t it? In an age of cyber connection and text messaging, I reasoned, getting a real note of any type, even the wholly expected one that’s sent for showing up at a wedding and giving a gift, should be recognized as a small luxury of the modern age. Besides, who ever complains about getting a subpar thank-you note?
Maybe nobody. But according to a slew of contemporary etiquette enforcers, that’s hardly a good reason to shirk the task. Thank-you notes are still considered de rigueur not just for weddings and their ancillary events — bridal showers, engagement parties — but for most occasions that involve gifts, acts of kindness or generosity, and/or parties or events given by someone else on your behalf. In the business world, job applicants are urged to always send thank-you notes as a follow-up to big interviews.
These rules have stood for ages, although Peter Post, great-grandson of etiquette pioneer Emily Post, says that an age-old problem is that the rules have always been inconsistently observed: Some people are punctilious about thank-you notes and others aren’t. Perhaps the most common offense is wanting to write a note but letting too much time pass after the party or the wedding to be unembarrassed about it. Post and other manners mavens say it’s better to do it late than never, but best to do it promptly.
The ubiquity of computers raises the question of whether an e-mail counts as a proper thank-you note, and the jury is somewhat split on the issue. The Emily Post Institute reservedly calls e-mail “an acceptable form of communication” that’s fine for thanking those parties with whom you correspond frequently, but everyone else is entitled to the real thing. But etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige recently sniffed in the Hartford Courant that “a real thank-you does not come by e-mail. They come in the mail in an envelope. And what comes out of an envelope is a beautiful thing to touch and to handle and to pass around for everyone to read.” The bulk of my wedding thank-you notes lived up to only half of that, but I’ll take comfort in knowing, via Peter Post, that I’m not alone in my failings.
Thank the redoubtable French for coming up with codes of conduct to be followed by all: King Louis XIV established etiquette (which means “card” or “placard”) in the royal courts in the 17th century. The first recorded rules of etiquette in this country were George Washington’s more democracy-conscious Rules of Civility, but it wasn’t until 1922 and the publication of Emily Post’s Etiquette — In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home that etiquette became ingrained in American family life and popular culture with maxims such as “no elbows on the dinner table” and “no chewing with an open mouth.” Not all manners, of course, are created equal. Writing thank-you notes is among the most refined expressions of etiquette and approaches being an art, and some, like my husband, avoid doing it not because it isn’t in their nature but because they aren’t good at it. For these well-meaning but faint-hearted folks, here is a fill-in-the-blanks guideline for writing the perfect — or at least complete — thank-you note, courtesy of columnist Leslie Harpold of the online magazine Morning News.
Greet the giver, as in “Dear Maggie.” Simple.
Express your gratitude, i.e., “Thank you for the lovely hostess gift of the bottle of red wine.” Harpold says to keep it specific and at all costs to avoid the throat-clearing writing trap of “I just wanted to write and say . . .” I should be doing serious time for this one.
Discuss use. “The red wine looks so wonderful next to my basket of fresh-baked bread on the kitchen table.” Harpold says you can be imaginative without resorting to lying. If the gift was money, don’t talk figures (“Thanks for the hundred bucks”) but how creatively you plan to spend it.
Mention the past, allude to the future. This isn’t nearly as esoteric as it sounds: “It was great to see you at the party, and I hope to see you at the next one.”
Grace. This is etiquette-ese for “repeat step 2 by saying thank you again.” “Thanks again, Maggie, for the wonderful gift.”
Regards. Self-explanatory. “Regards” — or Love, or Best — Your Name.
Besides direct references to money, a faux pas to avoid assiduously is somehow making the thank-you note about you and not about the giver and what he or she gave. If you’re writing to thank someone not for a gift but for providing a good time or for general thoughtfulness, simply skip Step 3. The last thing is to tear this out and post it on the refrigerator in your spouse’s or partner’s or roommate’s plain view, in case he or she ever pulls that “I can’t write notes” stunt again. They’ll thank you for it.