The year I graduated from high school, my mother had this notion that I needed to "come out" to high society in Washington, D.C. via the National Debutante Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball. A debutante I would be. I was thrust into a whirlwind of parties, teas, and an unending stream of thank-you notes. Today, I have several careers, among them writing. And I absolutely hate thank-you notes. I hate writing them and I hate receiving them.
The debutante forum and society events lasted through my college days. I learned not only to write thank-you notes, but how to write the proper RSVP. I never could understand why I had to RSVP in writing, and why it had to be so long.
"Ms. Paula Wenger regrets that she will not be able to attend the garden party at the British Embassy on June 5 at three o'clock in the afternoon."
Note, I had to write out "three o'clock." Really? Wouldn't a phone call do? There was one young woman in my debutante class whom I swore would go on to be a national morning television host or wife of a senator. She always spoke in floral and meaningless soundbites, and she loved writing those thank-you notes. She shared with me once that she would write them the very evening of the party or event as to not forget a detail or let time lapse. So diligent. Her notes always came on Crane paper with even penmanship end to end, exact borders, and they always had color. She did not have the illustrious career I anticipated, and her husband is not a senator, but she to this day writes the best thank-you notes.
Over time, I began to realize why I hated writing thank-you notes. They're obligatory and perfunctory. I got one recently in response to a gift I sent a friend and his wife. Naturally, he didn't write it, his wife did.
"Paula, it was so lovely of you to think of us and send us the gorgeous crystal bowl. We are so looking forward to seeing you in June."
There are facts in there: It was a crystal bowl, I will be seeing them in June. And it says "thank you." It also went straight to the garbage.
Rudely, I once told a friend to stop sending me thank-you notes. She was thanking me for everything, all the time, and each one was more boring than the next.
Then there's the microcosm of thank-you notes that quicken my pulse. I remember one from a friend in Dallas, primarily because it had a furry pink cupcake on the front and she knows I love cupcakes. First impression: She thought about me specifically and took the time to find a card in the shape of a cupcake. Inside, "The boys cried on the plane home. We can't stop talking about you and John, we can't wait to come back. A Broadway show, the amazing food you make, always, popcorn nights with extra butter, kitties sleeping with us, and girl, YOU. You're just da' bomb to be around. We can't thank you enough, so we won't." Now that has oomph and heart. I still have it. Another in my collection, "A purple peony and a red rose, so lovely and vibrant. But they're in your garden and not mine, because all my flowers die the minute I plant them. I'm just jealous as hell. Can't wait to have dinner again." I liken a well-thought-out "thank you" to The Great Gatsby: a mediocre plot line at best, draped in dramatic and colorful prose, equals a classic.
But when I send a gift, host a guest, or go out of my way in some way for someone and don't get a thank-you note, that's another story. I take note. I think less of the person. My high society thank-you note training tells me that's so very wrong. I'm a thank-you note hypocrite: On one hand, I don't want the thank-you note because I know it will be disappointing. I also don't want to write one. And on the other hand, if they don't send one, I'm pissed. How do you tell someone how to say thank you? The thank-you note should not be pavlovian. Don't think so much, or so little, think about why you are thankful, and what you love about this person. Give it color, depth, and meaning.
I've come to realize that like any gift, a thank-you note is not about you, it's about the receiver. It's true that you should send one, but the thought behind it is what counts. It all comes down to the edit: not that you are simply saying "thank you" for what was given, but that you've thought of this person beyond the four walls of the paper you are writing it on. Think before you start writing.
I am grateful for all the bad thank-you notes I sent and received, and while I dread them still, I read them hoping that someone will surprise me and send one that strikes a chord, like that fluffy cupcake thank-you note that sits on my office desk. And for each one that is poorly executed, I am thankful for being reminded how important they are, both in sending or receiving, and in meaning. I'm thankful for two decades of thank-you notes, up and down, since my debutante days when it all started, and thankful for being reminded daily that sending a good thank-you note will help those in peril, struggling with finding colorful words and meaning in their writing.
Summer is coming, and my husband and I already have a full dance card. I'm already thinking about my thanks. In the end, I must thank my mother for tossing me into the frenzy of thank-you notes. I went kicking and screaming, but now I truly understand the meaning behind the thank-you note and I strive to make the world a better place, one thank-you note at a time.
Mom, thank you.
For more by Paula Conway, click here.
For more on emotional intelligence, click here.