We’ve already spoken at length here about the value of a thank you note, so before we go any further, you should know that we at Uncommon Courtesy are firmly PRO thank you note. You should always be writing thank you notes, it’s a great habit, get into it.
However, we have previously advocated not just for the thank you note, but for the handwritten-in-ink-on-paper-and-mailed thank you note. But the more I think about it, the more I realize I do it mainly because That’s How It’s Done. This is not necessarily a bad thing–culture is defined by things that are just Done, and many things that are just Done are Done for great reasons. But it always helps to question authority once in a while. So I ask, does a formal thank you note need to be handwritten?
Victoria agrees that for minor thank yous (birthday presents, small dinner parties, among friends who you know don’t care), e-mail or a phone call or an in-person thank you is fine. But can you use email to thank someone for a wedding present? To your grandma? Below are some Pros and Cons for handwritten notes, so make your own choice, and let’s discuss more in the comments!
PRO: A handwritten note shows you’ve put effort into the thank you. Type out two sentences in email with no subject? That comes off as sloppy and lazy. But to write out your thanks on a card, address it and stamp it means there is physical evidence of how much thought you’ve put into it. You don’t even need to read the note to know that the sender is thankful, they spent at least 10 minutes getting the thing together for you!
CON: There is nothing inherently rude about email. I get that the medium is used mainly for sending links of funny gifs, but let’s face it, there’s nothing actually lazy or informal about email. There is nothing inherently formal or informal about any medium (ok maybe Snapchat), and email is our primary mode of written communication now. If you format your email like a letter and put thought into it, it will sound just as thoughtful. For instance, a few weeks ago I got an email from an editor of mine, saying how much she appreciates my work and being able to work with me. I nearly started crying, because it did not matter how that information was delivered to me; I felt appreciated. Of course, some people will ignore the message and judge the medium, but ultimately that’s their problem.
PRO: Supports the postal service. Our postal service is losing money! They’re shutting down branches everywhere! I used to be able to walk two blocks to my post office, and now I have to take a bus to get there, and it sucks. Every time you buy stamps and send letters, you’re supporting America and jobs and making sure your local post office doesn’t turn into another Rite Aid. And honestly, getting mail is great. It’s a small but joyful moment to open your mailbox and see something other than credit card offers and a random Pottery Barn catalog that you never signed up for. You can be responsible for giving someone that moment.
CON: Wastes paper. Handwritten notes require stationery and stationery is made on paper and paper is made from trees. There’s no way around it. Ok, I guess you can use paper made from bananas or hemp or something now, but you’re still taking things from nature, processing them, and then writing on them instead of letting them grow. If you’ve just gotten married, that is a hell of a lot of pieces of paper and envelopes to use just to ensure everyone gets thanked, when you could say what you want to say just as well by typing it out online. Oh and did I mention stationery is expensive? The basic cards I use are still $17 for 28 cards/envelopes, which I run out of fast, and which are not nearly as “formal” as some situations may dictate. Gmail, however, is free.
PRO: The note is automatically a keepsake. I have one thank you note on my fridge, written on beautiful stationery with stamped flowers, thanking me and my fiance for coming to the sender’s surprise birthday party. It’s written so well, and the paper is so pretty, and I couldn’t help display it for a while. And this is just from a friend! I’m sure you have an uncle somewhere who has saved every single thing you’ve sent him, and he would be elated to get another note to add to the collection. And then down the line you can look at these cards with your kids to teach them about manners, and handwriting, and all sorts of stuff.
CON: Your note will most likely be thrown out. I have one thank you note on my fridge, because (sorry) all the others have been thrown out. Not immediately, not before reading them and appreciating the sentiment and all that, but eventually they’re thrown out. Maybe within a week? Certainly when I open my desk drawer and find a bunch of notes in there. This is a fact of life: no matter how good your intentions and beautiful your work, all things decay. Memories fade and the legacies we try to leave behind will surely be forgotten. Best come to terms with this now.
These Pros and Cons will have different weight to different people. Maybe you’re a rabid environmentalist who doesn’t care that your cousin thinks an email is tacky. Maybe you’re a hoarder who doesn’t understand how anyone could throw away a handwritten note. Maybe you hate the Postal Service and want to watch it burn. This is something you have to figure out for yourself. Personally, I’m wrestling with it, because as much as I generally think cards are wasteful, I do enjoy writing, sending, and receiving letters and thank you notes.