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Belated/late thank you notes, cards and letters: Why it's never too late to send them

"The time is always right to do what is right."
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), clergyman & civil rights activist
Most of us know the feeling you procrastinate over writing that thank you note, and suddenly it's been weeks (or longer!) and your good intentions have been replaced by guilt and a slightly sick feeling. What to do? Well, there's only one way to remedy this sorry situation get busy and write that note! Here are some tips on how to go about it.
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Saying thank you: is it ever too late?

Some people worry that a late thank you note will only make things even more awkward. After all, won't it remind the recipient that they didn't receive a prompt thank you, and make you look bad? Isn't it better (and of course easier) to just forget the whole thing and make an effort to do better next time?

Don't kid yourself! There's a 99% chance that the person who gave you the gift, invited you to the event or did you a kindness or favor is keenly aware that you haven't thanked them. They may be too polite to mention it to you, but that doesn't mean that they've forgotten.

After all, having sent a gift or done someone a favor, would you rather face a permanent silence (possibly not even knowing if the gift arrived safely, or whether the favor was helpful), or belatedly hear that your present / favor was indeed worthwhile and appreciated (they just didn't get around to telling you)?

My parents (who are not generally the type to hold grudges) still smart slightly over the fact that good friends of theirs never thanked them for their wedding present... and that was nigh on 40 years ago! It's human nature, and the only way to put things right is to write and send a note, however long it has been.

Late thank you notes:
Why they're always better late than never!

Whether you write a thank you note days, weeks or even years late, it will be cathartic for you (you can finally relax knowing that you've done the right thing) and is sure to be appreciated by the recipient, instantly taking the sting out of any hurt or disappointment your initial lack of thanks may have caused. A note of thanks is something where you can be sure that 'better late than never' really does hold true.

A cousin of mine took well over a year to write thank you notes for her wedding gifts. After months of putting off the task, she finally faced up to the fact that it was something that would haunt her forever if she didn't get it done. Completing them was a great weight off her mind, and she was pleasantly surprised at the warmth with which her notes were received.

Similarly, my friend Diane had lost contact with an old friend of hers despite having received a lot of help and support from her during a difficult period of her life. The fact that Diane had never properly thanked her friend for this made her feel awkward and reluctant to get in touch again. She finally wrote a simple but heartfelt thank you note, and even though a decade had passed, it was happily received and re-opened the channels of contact once more.

Guidelines for writing belated thank you notes

So, what is the correct etiquette for a belated thank you note? Well, although I'm generally a fan of slightly longer, more 'chatty' thank you notes and cards, I'm a firm believer that belated thank yous are best kept short, simple and sincere.

  • Keep the tone cheerful and upbeat, and focus on the recipient's thoughtfulness and kindness, not on yourself.
  • A brief apology for the lateness of the note is quite sufficient. Avoid explanations and excuses about why you didn't write earlier such wordings risk diluting your gratitude and sincerity. As my grandmother sometimes said, 'excuses are suspicious, and you're better off without them'. So even if you have a genuine excuse for not writing earlier, resist the temptation to mention it the last thing you want is for your note to come across as whiney, or even slightly accusatory ("how unfair it was of you to expect a prompt thank you note when I was having to deal with the loss of my job / death of a relative etc. etc.").
  • Never let your 'sorry' outweigh the 'thank you'. It may be woefully late, but this is still a thank you note, and its focus should be on what the recipient has done for you.
  • Remember that the purpose of the belated thank you note is to express your gratitude, which will in turn serve to heal any resentment, and allow your relationship to move on. If you have news to communicate, say about a new job or upcoming vacation, save it for another card or letter to be sent a week or so later.

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