The decorations are in storage, the tree is on the curb and the gifts have been put away. You’ve wrapped up another holiday season. Or have you? What about thank-you notes?
Although they get a bad rap as old-fashioned, the etiquette experts we interviewed agree that "thank yous" are still relevant and the ideal way to show appreciation.
But Catherine Newman, an author, blogger and Real Simple magazine columnist, and Dorothea Johnson, the co-author with granddaughter Liv Tyler of Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top and founder of The Protocol School of Washington, are divided on the medium.
Do they have to be hand-written? Why can’t e-mail suffice?
Newman says that despite the general trend toward digital communication, people should take time to put pen to paper. “I feel like the cost of doing that in terms of time and resources is very small,” she says.
Johnson thinks emails are OK. “Today, yes,” she says, “particularly with someone in your age group.”
But in certain cases, Johnson says, only handwritten will do: people in the older generation, your boss or your boss’ spouse, your mother-in-law. She maintains that the extra time taken to hand-write a note shows the writer truly cares.
The Gratitude Effect
Sending a thank-you note isn’t meant to be burdensome, Newman says. “If you approach it as an opportunity to reflect on your good luck and the people in your life, I think it has a different feeling.”
Studies have shown that feeling and expressing gratitude actually improve
s health and happiness. According to researchers at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley, a grateful attitude may help boost immunity and lower blood pressure, decrease feelings of loneliness, foster generosity and compassion and generally improve emotional well-being.
And an article in Harvard University’s HEALTHBEAT journal suggests writing thank-you notes is a way to ingrain that grateful attitude into everyday life.
Nicole Bauer, 35, and a mother of two, is a dedicated thank-you note writer. Gifts that she or her young children receive are quickly followed by a handwritten missive.
“I know a lot of people go by the rule of only sending thank-you notes if they are not able to thank in-person,” Bauer says, “but I feel — particularly around the holidays — that chaos tends to happen and I don't always have time to properly acknowledge a gift.”
Newman makes what could be a chore a fun family event, gathering good pens and nice notecards, then sitting with her kids to reflect and write.
“And then my parents get the note, and what a thrill for them,” she says. “In amongst the bills are these two little envelopes, and they love that.”
To her, sending emails just isn’t the same. “I think there’s something about sitting with a pen that feels different,” she explains. “Email still for many of us has a work feeling.”
Going the Way of the 8-Track?
That said, an emailed thank-you is better than silence. A thank-you serves a practical purpose, too: letting the gift-giver know the gift was received.
Newman says an email or text to acknowledge the gift arrived is a fine idea (although she’d prefer it be followed by a handwritten note).
While some fear the handwritten card is going the way of the 8-track, Newman remains optimistic. "I do think it’s a potentially dying art, but I think it somehow keeps being resuscitated,” she says.
Maybe it’s because expressing thanks really does make people feel good. “Gratitude has a power,” says Greater Good researcher Robert Emmons.
It highlights the goodness in life that comes from outside forces such as friends and family. And focusing on the good makes life better.
Newman and Johnson offer these three tips for making note-writing easier:
1. “Get to it and do it!” Johnson says. “I think the easiest thing is to write that note as soon as possible.”
2. Preaddress and stamp an envelope before an event. The next morning, compose your note to the host/hostess.
3. Not excited about the gift? Newman used to tell her kids: “There’s always something true you can say.” Acknowledge the effort or thought put into the gift. Notes don’t need to be long, just heartfelt.
Emily King is a freelancer writer and editor who hasn’t finished her Christmas thank-you notes.