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Is it ever OK to send a Thank You Note via Email, Fax or Text/SMS?

"Who sends a half-assed text message in response to a bottle of '82 Chβteau Mouton Rothschild? How rude."
The Overnight Socialite by Bridie Clark

The hand written thank you note versus the email thank you note: both have their advantages, however the email thank you note remains very much the poor relation to the thank you note received in the mail.
But is this justified? And with email now the primary means of written communication for so many of us, is it perhaps time to loosen up the rules a little?


What the 'experts' say: the case for sending thank you notes by post/letter

Sending thank you notes by post/letterThe case for sending thank you notes by post/letter
"Thank you notes must always be hand written and sent in the mail. This declares that you have made an effort, and is therefore the only correct way to properly express gratitude..." So say the etiquette experts – and in some ways they are right.

After all, the sending of thank you notes in the mail is a time-honored tradition. It's thoughtful, meaningful and personal. Moreover, writing the mailing address – be it in Michigan, Manchester or Mumbai – helps you to spend a moment visualizing and establishing a connection with the recipient.

Email, by contrast, lacks the proper weight and respect necessary for thanking someone properly. Email thank you notes can be perceived as lazy or even 'cheap' (no need to pay for a stamp). Thus, in these days of electronic communication, it is particularly important to write thank you notes by hand to show that you really care.

A sole exception to the rules, according to the gurus of good manners, is the interview thank you note, which has gained acceptance due to the need for speedy communication and the general prevalence of email in business.

So there you have it: writing thank you notes the old fashioned way is the correct way to say thank you and emphasize how much a gift, favor or action meant to you.

By all means go ahead and hand write your thank you notes, and send them in the mail. Traditional etiquette and good old fashioned manners will have a place, and will never cause offence.

If, however, you are rolling your eyes, read on for another point of view...


The case for sending thank you notes by email

Sending thank you notes by emailThe case for sending thank you notes by email
Sandra E. Lamb in her useful book Write the Right Words suggests that sending a thank you email to someone who has hosted a party for you is 'boorish... rude... insulting'.

My goodness! Are sincere thanks expressed electronically really so awful? And can it really be the case that in these days of mass email communication, the sole acceptable way to thank someone is to break out the stationery, pens and stamps, and hand write a note to put in the mail?

There's no denying, of course, that handwritten thank you notes have an important role. Expressing gratitude for a substantial gift or major favor is pretty much always best done with a note in the mail. Proper wedding etiquette definitely demands thank you notes sent in the mail. And many older people in particular – even if they do have Internet access – are unlikely to appreciate thank yous received by email. In short, pick the recipients of your email thank you notes with care and if in doubt, stick with pen and paper.

Having said that, email has some great advantages. Not only are email thank you notes quick and easy to write (no handwriting worries or stationery dilemmas), they are free to send, and much quicker to arrive. And – most crucially – email thank you notes are much more likely to actually get both written and sent!


Better an email thank you... than no thank you at all!

As we all know, far too much appreciation goes unexpressed, and all too many thank yous go unsaid. I would suggest that a major reason for this is that people are paralyzed by the demands of 'good etiquette' which stipulates that thank you notes must be beautifully handwritten on attractive stationery.

My husband is one of those affected by this paralysis. While not short on gratitude, he is simply not the sort to write thank you cards, partly due to his status as 'severely handwriting-challenged', and partly because the whole process of selecting a card or stationery, writing the note, buying the stamp, and, finally, remembering to put the note in the mail, is simply too much for him. For him it means too many steps between feeling gratitude and being able to express it. Email, on the other hand, is just perfect for him – allowing him to conceive, write and send a note, all within a few minutes.

Some will protest that email thank yous are not as nice to receive. Well, possibly that is true in some cases. But I'm a firm believer that thanks are thanks, and gratitude is gratitude, however (or, indeed, however imperfectly) it is expressed.

Is gratitude expressed by email less real because it didn't involve the process of buying a card and putting it in the mail? Email cuts thank you notes back to the basics – gratitude and the impulse to express it. And surely that is not a bad thing.


The 'green perspective'

Tossing a thank you note in the bin. Photo: Z KilianMost thank you notes go straight in the bin after they've been read
A thank you note that arrives in the mail, written by hand on creamy card stock, is certainly pleasant to receive. But what happens once you have read the three or four, often formulaic, lines? Do you keep the card? Or do you simply toss it in the bin, together with its elegant tissue-lined envelope?

In most cases, I suspect, it's the latter. Not only is this a miserable waste of resources, but it can also result in a certain amount of guilt ('they sent me this note on classy stationery, and here I am tossing it straight in the trash').

An email, on the other hand, can carry exactly the same message, while being easy to read... and simple to delete. There's no guilt. And there are no wasted resources.

So it's no wonder that many people nowadays actually prefer to receive thank you emails. In fact, I wouldn't consider sending a thank you note card to many of my more 'techie' or green-minded friends – the former would be astounded and wonder why I had bothered when an email would have been so much quicker and easier; the latter would chastise me – mentally at least – for the waste of paper and stamp. The fact that an email is not as 'personal' in feel as a handwritten thank you note would matter not one bit to most of my friends (certainly the ones under, say, 40), who are completely at home conducting their lives online.


Revitalizing the thank you note

Maligned though email thank you notes currently are, not only do I think that they are certain to become increasingly common in the future, but I also suspect that they may actually hold the key to revitalizing the art of sending thank you notes.

As already discussed, email thank you notes are easy, quick, and can be sent almost instantly whenever gratitude strikes. Moreover, they are appropriate when a paper thank you card would be 'too much'. For example, my friend recently gave me a hardback book by one of my favorite authors. It had been given to her husband on his birthday, but was not something he was interested in reading, so she passed it on to me: a lovely thought, and much appreciated, but not, I felt, an appropriate time for a formal thank you note. After all, it had been my friend's idea to give me the book (her husband – who I hardly know – had simply decided to discard it), and I had already thanked her in person. The perfect time for a thank you email – an informal way to thank my friend's husband without making a big deal out of it.

With this, and countless other thank you notes sent by email every day, perhaps the oft quoted 'dying art' of writing notes will be revived and brought back to health.


What about fax or text message/SMS thank you notes?

Faxing a thank you note is much the same as sending it by email, in that it is more convenient, but less personal, than sending a note in the mail. Faxes, of course, can be hand-written or typed, with the advantage that a typed note can be printed out and signed before sending. You can also add a child's drawing, hearts and kisses... even a decorative border, should you wish.

Sending thank you notes by text message/SMSSending a thank you note by text message/SMS
As for text messages, proceed with caution! Whereas they are fine for an initial squeal of delight, say upon receiving a surprise bouquet of flowers, they do need to be followed up by a 'proper' note of appreciation, be it handwritten or emailed.

But just as the rules are rules for a reason, the rules exist to be broken. If you feel that a fax or text message thank you note is appropriate, then go for it. It's your call, and it's always going to be preferable to not saying thank you at all.

Guidelines for writing email (and fax) thank you notes

1. DO consider the occasion before opting to send an email thank you note. Emails are widely accepted – and even expected – in the case of interview thanks, and also in appreciation for small gifts and minor favors. However, weddings remain very much the domain of the 'proper' formal thank you note, hand-written on formal stationery and mailed to the recipient. So unless you move in particularly techie circles, wedding thank you emails are unlikely to be well received.

2. DO consider the recipient before opting to send an email thank you note. Email thank yous can be great, but pick and choose who you send them to. Granny and other elderly relatives are likely to appreciate a thank you note in the mail, and if someone has spent a particularly large amount of money/time/effort on you then a 'proper' thank you note is also in order to best express your appreciation.

3. DO make a little more effort with an email to make up for the perception that electronic communication is less personal. No need to limit your words to fit nicely on the paper, so be creative and make your thank you email a bit longer and more interesting – perhaps an anecdote about the kids, or some news from work. Why not attach a recent photo?

4. DON'T let the wording of your note descend into clichιs, slang or – worst of all – txt spk! Aim to retain some of the formality of a hand-written thank you note, rather than fall into the 'the gift is so cool!' conversational style. Avoid abbreviations, and always start your note with a greeting ('Dear Heather...') and end with a closing greeting ('Thanks again, and wishing you all the best.'). Don't forget to sign your name!

5. DO re-read your note several times before you click 'send'. Email is notorious for 'mis-communication', so check your working carefully for anything that the recipient might take the wrong way or misconstrue.

Spell check your thank you noteRemember to spell-check your message
6. DON'T forget to put your message through a spell-checker, and ensure that you have the recipient's name right. It is SO easy to make a typing error that you spot – too late – j-u-s-t as you click the send button!


6. DON'T just send a standard email – be creative! Experiment with different fonts and font colors, or send an e-card.

8. DO request a 'read receipt' (an optional setting when you send the email). Many people receive hundreds or even thousands of emails every day, so there's a real risk that your carefully crafted thank you note could be lost in the deluge.


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