Writing a Great Thank You Note is a Gift
My college boyfriend came from what is known in the South as a Good Family. It’s one of those things that does not need to be explained to Southerners we just all know what it means: a mix of factors including good taste, church-going, fraternity-joining, and appearances.
I was taking a summer school class in Tuscaloosa and so was he. I shared a two-bedroom apartment with a frequently absent roommate. It was a pitiful place held together by low-end paneling and shag carpeting. As bad as it was then, that old apartment building still stands, appallingly, more than thirty years later. Still, I had plenty of room to invite my then high-school aged brother over from Atlanta with his girlfriend. He would drive over; I would show him college life. Everything was all set.
Unhappily, a glitch in the plan emerged. My boyfriend was invited to a debutante ball in Big Town the same weekend. If I could get over to Big Town, I was invited as well and I thought the ball sounded fabulous. Could I go and leave Brother in Tuscaloosa? I mulled it over. It seemed creepy to invite and dash. What if they came to Big Town with us?
This was the plan: Brother and Girlfriend would come to Tuscaloosa; the next day we all four head to Big Town; drop them off at the house of Good Family; hit the Ball like some kind of preppy Cinderella and Prince; and crash at house before sweeping back to Tuscaloosa/Atlanta on Sunday. The secret sauce that made the plan brilliant – Mr. and Mrs. Good Family were out of town! In summary, I get to go to the Ball; high school brother still gets to spend the night with his girlfriend, etc. etc.
It’s a universal truth that all properly executed lies must be based in truth. Therefore, Brother and I colluded on our stories as our parents would undoubtedly want a recap of the weekend. We would tell the full truth with one tiny omission. Simple!
On his return, Sunday evening, my brother told our mother all about the weekend. As you would expect, all was well and good. No runs, no hits, no errors.
On Monday morning my mom called me with effusive gratitude. How nice of me to host my brother and how perfectly gracious of Mrs. Good Family to host, not just me, but also my brother and his girlfriend. It was on this act of gracious kindness that my horribly Southern mother anchored.
Mrs. Good Family must be properly thanked! Nothing would do, but mom must write a thank you note. Would I please provide her with the Good Family’s address? It was at this point that a dark blanket of terror began to smother me. If You-Know-Who received a thank you note from my mom, it would be a disaster. “Mom,” I appealed. “Why write a thank you note when you could send flowers?” And, not only that, I cannily suggested, Brother should have to be a gentleman and order them himself.
Flowers were duly ordered and charged to her credit card. I don’t remember now where they were sent.
The sad thing was that the next time I talked to my mom she again effused about Mrs. Good Family’s kindness and announced she would be absolutely sure to thank her in person.
Disaster loomed again. They would surely meet and I was certain my mom would never, never, never forget. What if my mom brought up the visit or the flowers to Mrs. Good Family? Should I come clean?
I’m sure he wondered at the time why I broke up with him.
Thank You’s On Earth
A friend of mine once said she was worried that when she got to heaven, she would be stuck in a heavenly waiting room having to catch up on all the thank you notes she was too lazy or too busy to write down on Earth. If that were true, I would be stuck there the longest, like some fraternity brother still hanging at the Omega Mu Gamma house in his fifth year. I’m not good about writing thank you notes, but I am good at writing them, the Good Family & Flower Disaster notwithstanding. Thinking about it now, maybe I will find myself leading the Thank You Note Purgatists Club in a classroom just outside of heaven.
But here in this earthly life, I like to think that a thank you note is a tiny miracle letting a sometimes sad, often scared fellow human to feel warmed by their own goodness. Here we go.
You have likely been party to a thank you note just like this one:
Thank you for the candy. It was delicious! My whole family loved it!
Most people read that thank you note and think, “That’s Nice.” as it flutters into the top of the trash can. Wouldn’t you rather the recipient of your note hold it in their hand and think, “Ahh.” What if your thank-ee read the note and instead tucked it into a drawer? I’m not sure if this is a note that would make it to the drawer, but I think it has a good shot.
Thank you for the candy. Only you would remember how much I love that candy and go to the effort to get me exactly what I love. I did let my family have a few pieces, but not that many. That’s because I have savored each piece; each one reminds me that I am so grateful to have someone in my life who doesn’t just take the time to treasure other people – you act on it! You are an inspiration to me.
With greatest love and admiration,
The Secret of the Drawer Thank You Note
Begin with quietly thinking, not about the gift or how much you like it. Instead, think about the person. What do they value about themselves? What standards do they hold themselves to? Who are they to themselves? Maybe they believe:
I am always honest
I am an empathetic person
I always have a fun time
I am always on time
I am artistic
I have great manners
The best thank you’s reinforce the reader’s best view of themselves. So once you have thought of the personal quality they care the most about, you still have more thinking to do.
Can you get even more specific?
You always find a way to be honest and authentic.
I never have an emotion that you don’t amplify back to me.
Every time we are together, you make me laugh.
You always show so much respect for other people, and even treat their time preciously.
Through your creativity, you help me see things I would not have seen before.
It’s not just that you always have wonderful manners, it’s that how you treat other people in the simplest ways shows that you care for and respect them, even the people you don’t know personally.
Now can you add how this amazing quality they possess especially enriches you?
You always find a way to be honest and authentic in the kindest and most helpful way. I always know I can trust you.
I never have an emotion that you don’t amplify back to me, making me feel understood.
Every time we are together, you make me laugh and do crazy things that become the best memories.
You always show so much respect for other people, and even treat their time preciously.
Through your creativity, you help me see things I would not have seen before and it nurtures my own creativity.
It’s not just that you always have wonderful manners, it’s that how you treat other people in the simplest ways shows that you care for and respect them, even the people you don’t know personally. You are a role model for me.
You can be thankful for the book, the gesture the hospitality – or you can be thankful for who they are. Which would you rather thank them for? Which would you rather be acknowledged for yourself?
The last twelve months have been particularly difficult ones for me. My sister has been there for countless hours on the phone, long walks and crying sessions. She was out of town for her husband’s birthday. I dropped off a gift basket for him with a short note. I do not remember the exact words, but my sentiments were: My sister has been a huge blessing to me this past year. She could not have been there for me without your support, without you giving her up for afternoons, or evenings that you could have been enjoying together. She has been my rock. She could not have done that without your constant support. I always knew you stood for loyalty to family, and now I, too, have been blessed by your steadfastness.
She told me he kept it.
One thing I can promise you, if you write a note that they keep, eventually they will tell you.
Does it have to be on paper?
A friend of mine stopped off in Atlanta for a business meeting and we spent the weekend exploring places I rarely visit alone: museums, gardens and the like. The day he left I texted him:
I am so grateful you are a spontaneous person who would just hop on a plane and let me show you Atlanta. And an authentic, mature human who would share your difficult experiences and also be truly interested in mine.
I am sure he liked getting that text. In my opinion, thought, it is not the same as a note and here’s why. The most important part of a meaningful thank you note is the other person savoring the validation. When the note “Goes Into The Drawer” it means that they accept and believe the compliment. It becomes part of their story and something wonderful they believe about themselves. You give them permission to love something about themselves.
While my friend may have appreciated the sentiments in my text, he cannot save it forever the same way you save a written sentence. Do you suppose he took a screen cap, emailed it to himself and printed it out? I just imagined myself grabbing a piece of paper, scribbling off the same note, mailing it and him getting the envelope a few days later. It’s been a long day. He pulls out the note. He reads it. Can you see him? Can you see him stop and lean against the counter and read it again? Can you seen him fold it in half? Can you see him as he tucks it in his journal? Can you see in his heart? It’s transformational.
Another friend once said when asked why she was such a fanatic about writing thank you’s, “If they went to the trouble to buy a gift and get it to me, the absolute least I can do is write and send a thank you note.”
So yes. Paper is best.
Writing? Ain’t nobody got time for writing
I was sharing my thank you note tips with a friend. She recoiled. “I’m not a good writer and frankly it’s intimidating. I don’t think I could write such a personal and detailed note.” What to do?
Quit whining and do it anyway. It’s not about you and your gifts, it’s about them and their gifts. They will forgive crappy, sappy writing. I promise.
Can you recover from putting off sending a thank you note?
Sometimes I wonder anyway about the perceived value of thanking someone for something you have never used or experienced. How much more sincere and real would the thank you be if you thanked your friend six months later after you have gotten value out of the gift.
The delayed thank you would work even better for a service or for someone helping you. Let’s say you recommended me for a job. Six months later I write to you and share how much I have grown in the role.
Six months ago when you recommended me for this job, I appreciated the support and I’m sure it was a huge factor in them selecting me for the job. After being at the company six months, I have been challenged and have grown professionally in unexpected ways.
I am even more grateful to you now, knowing what a great fit I am for this role and what a true opportunity this role is for me. Not only do you have amazing connections and intuition, people trust you — and your role in this ‘match’ is a perfect example of why they do. Thank you for putting all of that on the line when you recommended me. I love it here!
I love the idea of someone sending me text photo of them using the gift I gave them several months ago followed up with a text that says “I feel like royalty every time I use these luxurious, crystal tumblers.” Or “I’m so glad I finally have a way to keep my jewelry organized.” So many gifts never get used. It’s wonderful to think that someone not only loved and truly used my gift, but that they thought of me when they were using it. Why does this work? Because it’s an acknowledgment of what an undeniably great gift selector your friend is.
Saying Thank You Out Loud
Great spoken thank you’s, given one-on-one are more difficult to believe and savor in the moment. The point is to reinforce something they believe is their strength and give them the opportunity to believe it. In person, it’s often too high in emotional content, maybe even too embarrassing, too difficult to savor. Thank you’s in public are different and have a different, important role. Spoken gratitude changes the dynamic of a group. Consistent expressions of sincere gratitude change the group’s identity to one of trust.
One company I worked at had a daily stand up meeting. If you are not familiar with the Stand-Up it’s meant to be a quick team check in that keeps everyone focused, on-track and accelerates team execution. For this particular team, every person had about 3 minutes to update the team on something positive that happened the day before, what they were going to crush that day and what obstacles or threats to success were they anticipating for that day? One guy, managed to thank a team member as part of his update every single day. Before long, another person came to the meeting and expressed gratitude for a team member’s help the day before. Interestingly, because the gratitude was contagious more than half of the updates became expressions of gratitude. As the gratitude grew, respect grew. As respect grew, trust grew. As trust grew, confidence grew. As confidence grew, belief and innovation and good risk taking and revenues grew.
The surprising benefit of writing a high-quality thank you note
Expressing gratitude puts you in a grateful state. It changes your brain chemistry. It changes you – even if it’s just for a moment. It’s a small meditation. It’s an act of service.
In his book The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman shares his idea that people express and accept love in different ways and he was helpful enough to give us a few basic categories to keep us from being miserable in our relationships. He posits that different people have different ways of accepting and giving love: gift giving, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch.
Personally, I am an Acts of Service gal. For many years, my husband renewed my love for him every day by bringing me a cup of coffee when I woke up. That simple act filled me with delight.
A written and delivered thank you note either works or comes close on all five of the Love Languages. Writing a thank you note is an act of service that delivers words of affirmation. The note itself is a gift. Because the note can be touched, and held and smelled it’s is as close to a long-distance hug as we can get until we get to holograms and virtual reality. What about quality time? Maybe a note is not the same thing as spending quality time together, but when you write a This-Goes-in- the-Drawer quality note, it comes damn close.