The Lost Art of the Thank-You Note

By Lori McLaughlin

I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Another busy round of gift-giving for Christmas and baby showers and weddings and birthdays has come and gone, and nary a thank-you note in the mailbox.

Actually, there was one card, from an out-of-state friend’s son whom I hadn’t seen since the first Bush administration. I wouldn’t recognize him if I passed him on the street but he took the time to thank us for sending a college graduation check.

If I sound a little resentful, you’re right. I genuinely love gift-giving. The whole experience is appealing to me: the time spent considering the recipient’s individual needs, the browsing of store aisles, the selection of coordinating wrapping paper and bows and bags, the writing of a meaningful card to go along with the gift.

I know the value of every dollar in every check I write, too. When you work on an hourly basis, time really does equal money. It’s hard not to keep score.

So, to keep from feeling sorry for myself and perhaps to justify my feelings of being ignored, I turned to the arbiters of social graces. A survey of various etiquette websites opened a virtual Pandora’s box of bad behavior. Reading posts provided by Miss Manners ( and those that appear on about spoiled grandkids and extreme “Bridezillas” is as horrifying as anything by Stephen King—and there are lots of stories out there. According to Leah Ingram, a certified etiquette and protocol consultant, thank you notes (or the lack thereof) are the number one hot-button topic among readers.

I felt in good company, especially after a survey of friends supported my belief that writing thank-you notes is a dying art. We’re of the generation where every gift we got as kids was acknowledged with a handwritten note. Mom made us sit down and write one soon after the unwrapping. Today, all grown up and on the giving side of the equation, we expect the same treatment.

You can blame it on electronically-wired lives, shortened attention spans, and texts and tweets that pass for meaningful conversation, but when did America become so, well, ungrateful? Some of my pals don’t even expect thank-you notes anymore. And that’s a shame.

What, then, are we to do? One friend uses a sliding scale: with each missing thank-you the subsequent gifts drop in monetary value. Me? I’ve been tempted to stop sending anything to people who failed several times to say thanks. It’s my version of “three strikes, you’re out.” I haven’t done it yet, but I am close.

To check if I was justified in arriving at the next baptism empty-handed, I put the question to Ariel Kaminer, who writes the “Ethicist” column in the New York Times Magazine. “There is no such thing as an ethical obligation to give someone a present,” she emailed. She advised me to gently share my feelings with the offending parties, “not to accuse or shame them, not to put them on the defensive, but just to help them understand that their (in)actions have effects. Those effects may very well be unintended.”

I felt appeased, but while it feels wrong to stick it to the untrained younger generation, sooner or later they become accountable for their behavior. So, if you’re guilty of no-note crimes, consider this a teaching moment. It takes less time to write a letter with “Thank you for the birthday check” than it does to cash the check at a bank. Just sit down and do it, but don’t do it grudgingly. The few minutes with pen in hand may seem like an obligation but this small investment of time brings with it the potential of huge payoffs.

First and foremost, you’re going to make dear Auntie Emily’s day when she opens the mailbox and finds a handwritten envelope among the bills. She took the time to think of you, buy a present and give it to you, so the least you can do is be grateful. My 85-year-old Aunt Jean recently sent me a thank-you note I wrote her when I was six. The penmanship was horrible but it was meaningful enough for her to keep around for over 40years.

I must emphasize the handwritten element. It sounds old-fashioned but it makes a better impression than a hasty email. People save handwritten notes for decades; the same cannot be said for emails.

Whoever gets the gift should be the one who writes the thank-you. Use nice stationery or a card—it doesn’t matter—unless you’re three years old and haven’t mastered the Palmer Method. Then, it’s perfectly acceptable to give Nana a phone call and tell her how much you liked the Spider-man pajamas.

Now, there aren’t too many three year-olds reading this column, so I am speaking to all the parents out there when I say pick up the phone, dial your mother, and hand the phone to little Jacob. As the song goes, teach your children well.

Graduations or weddings where gifts tend to be substantial are must-write events, but any occasion big enough to warrant a gift is big enough to warrant a thank-you. People have actually thanked me for writing them a thank-you note for wedding gifts. Crazy.

Don’t let too much time pass before writing a note (we old folks worry our check got lost in the mail) and don’t make it one of those mass, fill-in-the-blank computer-generated ones. Gratitude is not generic. My friend Joan makes a party out of sending thank-you notes with her two boys:a table loaded yummy treats, drawing paper and crayons work wonders. For me, a nice glass of wine gets the creativity flowing.

So cheers to you, gentle reader. Moving forward I will give everyone a chance to do better, and be better. I will be “firm, friendly, and unashamed,” as Ask Amy says. Thank you for your time and, above all, remember to be nice. You don’t want your check to get lost in the mail.


Miss Manners:

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