On “thank you,” or why Socrates was wrong

As she drove us home in the blue Fiat that first week of fourth grade, my mother began by announcing that it was time for me to begin writing thank you notes. “When you’ve received a present (referring to my new tennis racket), you must follow up by saying thanks with a card or a letter,” she instructed. “It’s good manners.” So there I was. Torn between manners and a racket. Upon arriving home, she introduced me to Emily Post.

While the merits of Emily Post are much-contested (mostly by me for many years), the sentiment had the right intention. The formula is quite simple: when someone does something for you: say thank you. Nothing could be simpler, and nothing could be more valuable.

It was an invaluable piece of advice that I’ve followed in my adult life, writing thank you notes for all things — big, small, monumental, and frivolous. And always within 48 hours of the happening. All very personal. Never a Hallmark. Never a pre-printed affair. Never the same twice. Always something I have to dash off myself.

But there is some fitness to writing the thank you. Or at least a handful of things to keep in mind. Here are my guidelines to writing the critical note:

See also:

Six simple points on how to construct the thank you from TMN.

Thank you notes are tangible notes whenever possible.

These notes are all done by hand whenever possible, sent via USPS mail. A follow-up-thank-you (a thank-you for a gesture on a second occassion) may be done via email, SMS, DM, Facebook, or whatever your choice of media (discretion should be used, depending on nature of thing); regardless, the text should be composed with care.

Thank you notes need not be “notes.”

Write your thank you notes on other objects. Second to notes, I send thank-you books quite often, writing the note of gratitude inside. Thank-you videos are time-intensive, but family members receive them. Newsprint, photos, negatives. There are choices.

You want busy people to read your thank you note too.

Thus, keep it short; do not restate the obvious; and give busy people them something of value to read. Personal contacts and good information they weren’t aware of count as value. Don’t ask busy people for more. (And, of course, under no circumstances, ever, should you write out a URL by hand in a thank you note.)

Set up a thank-you framework.

The biggest obstacle to thanking is sometimes the tools. Phone, email, letter, SMS — options get in the way. Do yourself a favor and set up a thank-you framework. Get some cards, stamps, or even an email template. Next time you have to say it, it’s easy.

Do not send one-word emails of “thanks.”


Regarding thanks, all for this site’s new design goes to my close friend Jason Santa Maria. Without his friendship and design guidance, much would be much less.

Much later on than fourth grade, I was quite troubled to read Socrates urging that “writing destroys memory.” His intention, of course, was that those who use writing will become forgetful, relying on external resources for what they lack. I think these written transcriptions over a past event don’t destroy memory, but might, in fact, preserve it. Clearly, Socrates had just never received a thank you note.