Major confession: Even Mrs. Levering, the most considerate person alive, admits that occasionally she regards thank you notes as a bit of a chore. “Sometimes I have to just make myself sit down and write,” she says. Small comfort when it’s December 26 and you can’t find the list of who gave what to your three small children. But for those of us who would rather do anything than sit down and write a thank you note, Mrs. Levering has some inspiring advice. Herewith a primer in the art of saying thank you—whether it is to someone who has invited us to dinner, given us a gift, or somehow made our lives more joyful.
DH&G: Most of us want to express our gratitude but feel stymied when we sit down to write out what usually is a pretty boring letter. What is the basic format, and how can we liven up our message?
Mrs. Levering: In general, a note needs a date placed in one of two places. If placed at the top, use the upper right-hand side; if placed at the bottom, use the lower left side. You always need a greeting with the person’s title (example: Dear Aunt Betty), and this is placed on the left-hand margin. The body of the note begins under the greeting, and it is indented as the paragraph begins. This main paragraph includes the reason for sending the note, and it always includes “thank you.” Your signature is included with a closing on the right side. The note doesn’t need to be long, but it does need to be sincere. If you don’t care for the gift, you can always tell the sender how much you appreciate her kindness.
If you can be interesting with your words, listing each gift or memory does show your appreciation to the giver. The sooner the note is sent out, the easier this can be accomplished. Even a very short note usually has two paragraphs. The last paragraph may include a mention of seeing each other again or a greeting to another family member.
As a final note, it is important to remember that it is not appropriate to slip a request into a true thank you note. As an example, if you mention a donation, you have ruined the impact of your letter.
DH&G: Is sending an e-mail thank you really churlish?
Mrs. Levering: At times in business, an e-mail or a phone call acts as an emergency measure for an acknowledgement of a favor, gift, or invitation. However, manners expert Letitia Baldridge thinks e-mail is a hundred times “less effective.”
DH&G: We have a “friend” who received something she didn’t particularly like from a relative. How should our friend respond to an unwanted gift?
Mrs. Levering: Not all gifts are received with the same enthusiasm, but all gifts should be acknowledged with equal courtesy and appreciation. If the gift comes from someone who means a lot to your “friend,” it only seems right to make an effort to display it. If distance is a problem, your friend can send a photograph of the object being used before it is “put away.” The object of your friend’s distress does not have to live with her forever.
Returning a gift that’s the wrong size or color is understood. Also, a child who receives six of the same toys has the option of exchange. If the gifts are opened at a birthday party, provide your child with a few appropriate words ahead of time. As an example: “Great! You know just what I like. Thanks.”
DH&G: How can we encourage children to write thank you notes?
Mrs. Levering: “Encourage” is the right word. Also, children need to be taught age appropriate skills, and they need to see an adult enjoying writing and receiving letters and notes.
For a child just beginning to draw on paper, a grandparent is a perfect recipient for the “letter.” When the grandparent writes in the return mail, the praise and recognition will begin to establish the personal happiness and satisfaction that comes from letter writing.
Once this writing pattern is established, the notes that follow are much easier to encourage. “Arranging” for your children to hear you praise the letter writers is a good way to encourage the importance and kindness of writing. Pinning up the letters they receive is another step in motivation. After a few notes have been sent, a surprise gift of stationery with a child’s name imprinted is an exciting new venture.
DH&G: Is there a statute of limitations on thank you note writing?
Mrs. Levering: Thank you notes are the backbone of courtesy. The sooner your note is written, the sooner it will bring the real feeling of appreciation to the gift giver. A thoughtful note is never received too soon, but better late than never.
A printed card of thanks without a personal note included is not polite. Notes for wedding gifts should be sent within three months of the wedding, in the bride’s own handwriting. For a stay in someone’s house, send your note in less than five days. For a note of sympathy, replying can take as long as six weeks. To respond to a gift of flowers or food, send the note immediately. For the large volume of “get well” cards and gifts, take as long as needed to be well enough to write.