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When should you write a
Thank You Note, Card or Letter?

"Feeling gratitude and not expressing it
is like wrapping a present and not giving it."
William Arthur Ward (1921-1994), American writer of inspirational maxims
Despite the fast pace and technology of the modern world, numerous occasions and situations still require the writing – and sending in the mail – of a thank you note, card or letter.
In addition, there are many occasions when a thank you note may not necessarily be expected, but is a nice touch that is sure to be much appreciated.

So, on what occasions is a thank you note a must?

Generally, the more time, effort or money someone has spent on your behalf, the more important it is to thank them formally, and that means with a letter or card in the mail. Examples of occasions when a thank you note should definitely be sent include the following:

1. When you have received a gift

This is the big one! Weddings, bridal showers, baby showers, baptisms, bar (and bat) mitzvahs, graduations, birthdays, Christmas... and that's to name just some of our gift-giving celebrations. The truth is that pretty much every gift deserves – and indeed requires – a thank you note (although see possible exceptions below).

A thank you note is particularly in order when you receive a gift or present in the mail. Your thank you note then serves not only to express your gratitude, but also – importantly – informs the sender that the gift arrived safely.

Note that weddings, in particular, stand out as occasions when thank you notes are essential, and failing to send them has the potential to cause great offence.

2. When you have received help and/or a favor

A thank you note is appropriate anytime someone helps you in a significant way – such as helping you move house, lending you an evening gown for a special occasion, or providing emergency child care when you have to work. Other examples include when someone has organized a bridal shower or baby shower for you, or visited you regularly during an illness. If the assistance you have received has been substantial, and has cost some considerable effort, then a thank you gift may also be appropriate.

3. When you have received hospitality

Attendance as a guest at a dinner party or formal meal, and an overnight – or longer – stay in someone's home are both occasions when a thank you note is not only polite but pretty much essential. In the case of having stayed in someone's home, a thank you gift may also be appropriate.

4. When a great opportunity has been brought to your attention and/or made possible

Perhaps someone has passed on news of a job vacancy, put in a good word for you with the boss, granted you an interview, or awarded you a scholarship or internship? Or maybe you have been introduced to a particularly valuable contact, or received an excellent job reference?

In all these circumstances, a thank you note will not only convey your gratitude, it will make the recipient far more likely to help you again in the future. Not only in the business world, but in academia and in your personal life, never underestimate the power of a timely and well-composed thank you note to open doors for you!

Are thank you notes necessary for family members?

Every family has its own customs, traditions and cultural background, and whereas some love to send and receive notes and cards, others might find them unnecessary, inappropriate or even a little insulting ('Why has my granddaughter sent me this note when she could have just called me up? Is she trying to hide the fact that she didn't like the gift?...').

You know your own family – if thank you notes are unnecessary or maybe misunderstood, then don't write them!

On what other occasions might it be gracious to send a thank you note?

Perhaps your neighbor has kept an eye on your home while you were way, or regularly takes in mail for you while you are at work? Perhaps your child's teacher has inspired him or her to explore ancient history, or take up a new hobby? Or your mechanic has done a great job fixing your car, and saved you money on parts in the process?

In all these cases, a thank you note is neither required, nor – in all likelihood – expected. However, sending one might well be a thoughtful and gracious gesture.

It's great to surprise people with a little gratitude. From time to time I enjoy sending a note of thanks when none is expected. Obviously I don't suggest you send them indiscriminately! But there are many occasions when people inconvenience themselves, or go that extra mile on our behalf. In these cases expressing your gratitude with a note or card can be such a gracious thing to do.

A thank you note for my hairdresser...

It took me a long time to find a hairdresser I like, and now that I've found her I rarely go any place else to have my hair cut. Recently, however, I was out of town for an extended period and visited a different salon. It was OK, but the experience made me really realize how much I value my hairdresser back home, and how glad I am that I found her.

Then it occurred to me: why not let her know? Sure I could tell her (and I will) when I next have an appointment, but in the meantime why not send her a note? And so I did.

Well, at my next appointment I was greeted with a beaming smile, and there was my thank you card tacked up on the mirror! My hairdresser told me that receiving my card was one of the nicest things that had happened to her for a while.

Now I'm not necessarily suggesting that you go write a thank you note to your hairdresser (however, if you want to do so, see my advice on How to write a thank you note for your hairdresser, hairstylist, colorist or barber). But it's a good example of how people we tend to take for granted can really appreciate us taking the time to thank them properly from time to time.

Are there any times when you should not send a thank you note?

Thank you notes are great, but be careful not to go completely overboard. You don't want to become like the character in a novel I read who was so obsessed with politeness that "she'd send a thank you note for a tooth extraction"!

There are times when verbal thanks, a phone call or e-mail are perfectly sufficient. However, this does rather depend on what sort of social (or business or academic) circles you move in.

For example, if you are given a gift in person and open it in the giver's presence, then you will have thanked them verbally, plus they will hopefully have seen the appreciation on your face. In that case following up with a thank you note in the mail might be considered to be 'overkill'. But again, it depends on the situation and who is involved. Are the people concerned likely to be expecting a thank you note? It's your call!

Generally, small favors from someone you know well don't require anything as formal as a thank you note (although an e-mail might still be a nice touch). If you do send thank you notes for smallish things, then try not to send several in too short a space of time. Despite best intentions, a succession of thank you notes can come across as needy or even sycophantic. Alternate notes with verbal thanks, or try to combine thanks for several things into a single note.

Finally, never ever send a sarcastic thank you card along the lines of 'thank you so much for ruining my life', or 'thanks a bunch for failing to turn up for our date on Thursday'. Believe me, it's been done. But it's tacky, reflects badly on you, and you're likely to regret it later. So, don't do it!

See also: