A young woman emailed me recently to ask me for some career advice. I didn’t know her and, in some respects, I’d not advise anyone to follow my career path, but I was happy to write back. And then I never heard from her again. Was it my advice or was she just satisfied with the exchange? “In my day,” I thought, “we acknowledged older people who took time to give us advice!” but then I thought, “maybe I am extremely old and out of touch to expect to hear from her again!”
Once upon a time, perhaps the rules of engagement were clear when it came to thanking people – for a gift, for a business interaction, for a night out or a weekend visit to someone’s home. No longer; with so many communication tools at our disposal, the correct route to expressing gratitude is far from clear.
I’ll be the first to put my hand up to say that I’m among the perplexed. While I might have expected a thank you in return for that email I wrote, I also am sure that I have sometimes gone very wrong.
Like many people, I grew up being told by a kind and responsible mother that I should always write notes to thank relatives who gave me gifts for Christmas and Chanukah (we’re a two-religion family). Like many people, as a child I found this, for some reason, an incredibly onerous task, perhaps because I wanted to spend my time colouring imaginative pictures, not learning how to spell the names of distant relatives. Now that I’m an adult, I want to say that I’m a person who always sends an appropriate note of thanks through an appropriate channel.
But the truth is that I want to be that person, but I’m not always. Sometimes I do it. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes I probably do it wrong. For a while, on every birthday, I’d think, “Now I am a grown-up lady, I will always send wonderful handwritten thank-you notes!” until I realised that I was well into my thirties and always without a postage stamp – but pretty good at texting people after they had me round to dinner. Quite good. OK at it. If you had me round and I didn’t text you afterwards, let me say now: “Thank you. I had a lovely time!”
When it comes to sending thanks, weddings are surely the life occasions around which the most pressure swirls. Tradition – according to Emily Post, Miss Manners and the like – holds that you should really send them within three months, but at the longest you have a year to write thank-you notes for your wedding gifts before your marriage will automatically be annulled. Just kidding! After the year has passed, according to these mysterious “rules” you’re just officially rude. Shan-Lyn Ma, founder and CEO of the wedding-registry platform Zola, says that in addition to a handwritten card, “I also suggest that couples send guests a quick text or email right away, just to acknowledge that you received their gift.” That makes sense – especially when you’re sending gifts through online means, it’s just good to know that it arrived (or that it didn’t – I once sent a friend a fruit bouquet that was delayed in transit by an unexploded WWII bomb and I had to take action to get a non-mouldy one to replace it).
When I think of the times I felt put out by a lack of thanks, they’re always the cases when I feel like I’ve given more than I was comfortable with
But why is a text or an email not enough? It can’t be overlooked that many of these conventions were established when thankfulness, along with all other emotional labour, was considered women’s work. Maybe it still is – I have never received a thank-you note for a wedding gift written by a male friend, though I have received one that said the recipient would think of me while using the toilet brush I’d given her (this was, of course, in part my own fault, due to my determination to always purchase the most hilarious item on the wedding list). Eloping meant that I didn’t need to write too many wedding thank yous, but it was a responsibility that I took on without discussion with my husband, who signed cards when presented with a pen, but did not buy or write them.
And that’s before you consider other life events: babies, birthdays, that kind of thing. For the first, I think if you judge someone for not sending you a thank-you note for a baby gift after the baby is born, you aren’t a very nice person. And that maybe points to the fact that, in principle, we should give gifts because we care about people, not because we want them to acknowledge that we care.
What happens, really, if you don’t send a thank-you note? The podcaster Helen Zaltzman did not send thank-you notes after her wedding, in part because she and her husband had a complex plan for personalising them that turned out to be tricky in execution, but in larger part because her mother was in a terrible car accident shortly after the wedding, which understandably took up all of her time and attention. “I think if I’d sent them a year after the wedding, it would have been all right,” she says. “Friends knew about my mum’s crash, so were fairly sympathetic, and on our first anniversary it would have been a callback to the wedding. But I didn’t. I am the kind of person who has to get this sort of thing done straight away or it never gets done – I don’t forget, but the more time that passes, the more onerous the task seems and the less and less likely I am to do it.”
There hasn’t been a backlash, not per se, not unless you count her internal one: “No friend has ever mentioned it and I’m not sure that they could without seeming a bit of a jerk, but I certainly feel like a jerk whenever a friend sends me a card to thank me for a wedding present!”
And what of the handwritten note of thanks for a job interview? It seems like standard advice that is doled out to young job applicants and indeed I think it may have helped me get my very first job in 2005, but it was also a role in which my responsibilities included actual correspondence with a Dowager Duchess (“Dear Duchess” is how you address those letters, a question that sent half of the office scrambling one Friday afternoon). But after that, I switched to email – because it was an immediate way to express thanks for an interview and confirm interest in a job. Because, I suppose, I work for digital-first companies where post is a rare thing. But also because, as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve come to realise that being hired is unlikely to hinge on a handwritten note.
Especially because I now sometimes interview people, too. When I received one from a candidate earlier this year, nine months after an interview because it had gotten lost in a mailroom, I didn’t think, “Oh, I should have hired that person!” I had turned them down because they didn’t have the skills to do the job, not because they didn’t send me prompt thanks.
That said, Sarah Drinkwater, the head of Google’s Campus London, finds writing thank-you notes at year’s end a pleasant ritual, but also a beneficial one. “I have an unusual job that rests on influencing/charming people not on my team,” she wrote to me over Twitter, so writing notes is a networking tool for “saying thanks, sharing our successes, and reminding them we exist”.
Are digital thanks ever OK? Once upon a time, in the early days of Twitter, there was a trend of posting acknowledgment of people you’d hung out with the next day – “Had great drinkies with @pretentiousfriend last night!” – which always felt braggy to me, intended to induce envy in the uninvited, rather than real gratitude to the company. Mercifully, it seems to no longer be in fashion, perhaps due to the high possibility that the tweet will appear in context next to a racist rant from a world leader.
With so many communication tools at our disposal, the correct route to expressing gratitude is far from clear
But Instagram remains a minefield for the public thank you. Following in the footsteps of brands in our private lives means that, in some circles, it’s become standard to photograph a gift from a friend to acknowledge it, though this can also feel like showing off. I do it when a friend has sent me something that I know they want to promote – a book, usually – but I try to keep it low-key when it’s in reference to a private event.
It is hard to get people who don’t send thank-you notes to talk about it, probably because they are afraid of being regarded in a negative light. But people who love to write them really love to talk about it. Passionate note-writer Aimee Phillips says: “I HATE a public Instagram thank you and will never do it. It makes any situation feel crass. If someone sends you something thoughtful, it feels almost rude to publicly throw out a “Thanks @someone!” Phillips is so keen on writing notes that she has a shelf-ful of equipment and finds that people’s reactions are always positive, because they’re “increasingly surprised in this day and age to receive anything in the post. I often get a thank you for the note.”
Several people pointed me to publisher Tom Bonnick, who may be London’s king of thank-you notes, in that he seems to have an actual fan base. Having been taught to do it by his mother to acknowledge birthday and festive gifts, “I will very happily write a thank-you note for just about anything – for gifts, of course, but in my case more usually because someone has hosted a lunch or a dinner party, or shown me some other act of generosity: given me advice or helped me put up bookshelves or something. I just really enjoy writing them.” But even he resorts to digital means sometimes. “I do quite often feel the need to send a text or an email or a DM first, yes. I think the most important factor here is whether thanks would be expected. If I find myself on the receiving end of anything for which one would expect to receive thanks, I absolutely feel the need to send a message very quickly, yes – Royal Mail is not efficient enough in those circumstances.”
Overall, in my survey of people’s thanking behaviour, I noted that many people take a like-for-like approach: if an invitation is issued via email, they’ll send an email thank you; if it comes in the post, they’ll respond with a piece of mail. And sometimes thanks in person is more than enough. When I think of the times I felt put out by a lack of thanks, they’re always the cases when I feel like I’ve given more than I was comfortable with – time to a person I did know, or a gift given out of obligation, rather than love. Perhaps the most important rule of giving thanks is that no matter what the channel, it’s best given and received with little expectation and much goodwill.