Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The Thank-You-Note Dilemma

From the time I was a little kid, the idea of writing the thank-you-note was engrained in me by my parents. When you got a birthday or Christmas present from family or a friend, or if someone did something particularly nice for you, you hand-write a thank you note and mail it to them. No matter if you said thank-you in person, or over the phone, writing that note was something more meaningful somehow.

A CNN story on the topic has this to say:

“It reinforces the lesson of gratitude and appreciation for others’ time and effort,” says MichÇele O’Reilly, director of the Connecticut School of Etiquette, in Darien, Connecticut

Over the years I’ve probably written dozens, all following a similar 4-5 sentence format while still being heartfelt and sincere. During my childhood, it was a ritual I dreaded but now I do it happily, even though it is a tradition which has largely fallen out of vogue.

And why *has* it fallen out of vogue? Practically none of my friends do it, although they are no less thankful. Perhaps people now see it as wasteful, when you could just send an email instead? Perhaps its a reflection of my Southern roots, part of the culture of politeness? Maybe people are busier and just have less time to hand write notes? Whatever the reason, I find it a worthwhile and polite thing to do. Am I alone in my thank-you-noting?


  1. #1 J
    December 27, 2007

    You are not alone! I still write out thank-you notes at the Holidays and my Birthday. My wife is constantly sending out notes and cards to people for all manner of thank-you occasions.

  2. #2 Brian
    December 27, 2007

    I do it as well, but mostly only for older people. I have actually found that some people my age (who universally do not send thank you notes) will even resent them sometimes, because it implies to them that they should also be sending such notes.

  3. #3 Chuck
    December 27, 2007

    I too was trained by my folks to send thank you notes whenever I received a gift, and as a kid I dreaded it as well. Nowadays I find that my reluctance to write them has more to do with my abysmal (bordering-on-dysgraphia) handwriting than anything else.

  4. #4 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 27, 2007

    Why, you ask? It’s because of rampant Darwinism! All moral decay can be attributed to Darwinism. Just ask Ken Ham.

  5. #5 Nelson Muntz
    December 27, 2007

    When I was little my mom made me send thank-you notes. Nobody else did, and everyone else understood my mom made me do it, so they didn’t blame me. They knew my mom was susceptible to Hallmark advertising, which made them feel sorry for me.

    My mom taught us straight out of Emily Post. I learned to bow and my sister learned to curtsy. How much of that do you see today? And how grotesque does it look?

    Suppose you receive a dozen gifts from as many people, ranging from spectacular to cheesy. You respond by sending essentially the identical acknowledgement to each giver, which collapses your gratitude, and their generosity, to a mere generic token. Is that the effect you want?

  6. #6 cephyn
    December 27, 2007

    My mom (not an Emily Post devotee, but certainly consulted her) always made me write thank-you’s as a kid. I hated it. I don’t do it anymore. If you’re going to see the person, or speak to them – thank them directly. That’s far more personalized than a thank you note. If you’re not going to see or speak to them – why are they sending you something? Are you mooching off them? That’s just weird. Anyone who deserves a thank you note deserves to be thanked directly.

    Also, I don’t expect thank you notes from people I give gifts to. I don’t see any point in it – what am I going to do with it? Nothing, it’s clutter and a waste of paper. Send me an email, give me a phone call, or say thanks next time we meet up. I don’t need a note (that was probably written in 3 seconds among a dozen others).

  7. #7 The Ridger
    December 27, 2007

    The choice isn’t “thank you note” or “phone call/email/personal thanks”. Those things are equal. The choice is “thank you” or “no thanks”. Back in the day, phone calls were expensive, email didn’t exist, and mail was cheap and reliable. Of course people wrote thank-you notes.

    The key isn’t that you must write a thank-you note. The key is that you must express your thanks. Don’t get hung up on the form.

  8. #8 Alexa-Blue
    December 28, 2007

    Well, nobody does it like the Brits. A question: if it is really better to give than to receive, shouldn’t thank you notes head in the other direction?

  9. #9 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    December 28, 2007

    Speaking as an uncle who occasionally sends gifts in the mail, it would be nice to at least know that the goods were received.

  10. #10 Dave Briggs
    December 28, 2007

    Perhaps its a reflection of my Southern roots, part of the culture of politeness? Maybe people are busier and just have less time to hand write notes? Whatever the reason, I find it a worthwhile and polite thing to do. Am I alone in my thank-you-noting?

    I am a transplant to the South and have been here for over 20 years. I find the culture of politeness to be a very charming attribute and one of the things I love about the South! I think we all just have to be understanding that the world has gotten a lot more complicated and busy, so politeness got relegated to a back burner out of necessity. But it is a real nice treat when it shows up! It adds a transcendent pleasure to life!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  11. #11 Alvaro
    December 29, 2007

    When you receive a gift, do you prefer to receive a thoughtful gift or a generic gift card bought in a supermarket.

    When you send a Thank You note, what you are really sending is a thoughtful gift back. So I encourage you to keep doing it 🙂

  12. #12 Azkyroth
    December 30, 2007

    My thoughts in brief: Thanking people is important. Sending handwritten thank-you cards is awkward, wasteful, and unnecessary, and distasteful since I mentally associate the perceived need to do it that way with the sort of people who give you a dirty look if you say “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome.”

  13. #13 alexa-blue
    December 31, 2007


    Charity also lowers the stress hormones that cause unhappiness. In one 1998 experiment at Duke University, adults were asked to give massages to babies, the idea being that giving a baby pleasure is a compassionate act with no expectation of a reward, even a “thank you,” in return. After they performed the massages, the seniors were found to have dramatically lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine in their brains.

    The clear implication here is that saying thank you is hurtful to the original gift giver (although net happiness may be unaffected if the negative hedonic effects on the thank you note receiver are balanced by the positive hedonic effects on the thank you note writer, the note itself being analogous to a gift with no expectation of return).

  14. #14 Freddie Sirmans
    December 31, 2007

    Just browsing the internet. You have a very, very interesting blog.

  15. #15 Lab Lemming
    January 1, 2008

    The only arguments against sending thank you cards are guilt-induced rationalizations.

  16. #16 Azkyroth
    January 1, 2008

    The only arguments against sending thank you cards are guilt-induced rationalizations.

    I’m fairly certain that a number have been advanced in this thread that do not fall into that category, but as I’ve never encountered this sort of bold overgeneralization from a person who was amenable to rational persuasion in the first place…

  17. #17 CC
    January 2, 2008

    My mom, too, trained my sisters and I in thank you notes. It’s polite. I still send them unless I said a verbal thank you. It’s especially good to do if a gift was mailed to you — that way the giver also knows you received it.

  18. #18 suzanne
    January 2, 2008

    I’ve been well-trained to send thank-you notes. My relatives expect it, but most everyone else I know does not. I’ve had people thank me for a thank you note that they didn’t expect. It’s a very worthwhile practice.

  19. #19 Amy
    January 4, 2008

    Funny, I haven’t sent a thank-you note in a long time, but I’ve felt guilty about not doing so since I was a kid. I think they’re a classy touch.
    However, at Christmas the complete chaos at my family celebration and the lack of gift tags make it pretty hard to keep track of who gave what to whom!

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