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The Art of Writing a Thank You Note

Maria Eilersen

Whether you’ve just had a job interview or received a thoughtful gift, sending a thank you note is not only appropriate, it’s expected of you. Thanks to the pervasion of etiquette books in the late 19th century, the practice has become embedded in our cultural fabric, existing as a kind of social capitol that is imperative to maintaining personal and professional relationships.

So how do you make yours stand out from the crowd? Both the ancient Chinese and Egyptians wrote notes of fortune and goodwill on slips of papyrus before the practice was adopted by Europeans in the 15th century, where it became a social expression of gratitude.

Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.

Sadly, since a German immigrant popularized greeting cards in America in 1856, handwritten letters have become increasingly less common, often replaced by texts or email for the sake of convenience. This shift from tangible to electronic communication makes sense considering the advancements in technology, but it seems the new medium lends itself to more to a practice of efficiency. Crossing the thank you note off the to-do list takes precedence over composing a thoughtful letter.

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Le Kraft, a traditional, vintage paper studio in Paris

This is perhaps because the act of writing a thank you note is often awkward, contrived, and strangely uncomfortable despite the habitual exchange of gifts in modern society. Talented writers have wrestled with the basic expression of gratitude for centuries, pointing to the inherent element of vulnerability the humble act requires. This may explain why we now attribute such great value to online and mobile interactions; a “like” on Facebook is a sign of encouragement and a retweet is a form of engagement, and yet this is precisely why a handwritten note is so special. There being no delete key, we’re required to ruminate and plan our message before we begin writing, pausing throughout to consider our intention.

This palpable emotion is what makes a thank you note sincere. Composing a thank you note is a moment to reflect on your good fortune, specifically on something you’ve been given — whether it be another person’s time, knowledge or money in the form of a gift — and to express your gratitude. It’s an opportunity to practice gratefulness, which numerous studies claim is not only pivotal in nurturing social relationships, it also makes you happier, less depressed and more satisfied with your life. As Cicero puts it, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.”

Practically, a good thank you note is:

  1. Specific. Address what you have been given, what it makes you feel and why it’s appreciated.
  2. Timely. Ensure your note is delivered within a reasonable time frame, like within 24 hours of an interview or not long after your wedding.
  3. Public, if possible and contextually appropriate. Having witnesses to the gesture makes it all the more powerful.
  4. Invested. Go the extra mile to show you care by not only handwriting the note, but taking the time to find nice stationary and think carefully about what you want to say before you compose the letter.