By Heather Smith
Three months of marriage is not enough to hone expertise in most areas of married life, but it has sharpened my skill in one small area: the writing of thank you notes. As of a few weeks ago, I had written well over 200 of them in conjunction with my wedding. Being prone to ponder deeply upon even mundane tasks, I naturally found myself musing over the art of the thank you as I compelled my throbbing hand to scrawl out “just one more” before resting. But what really made me contemplate this topic was the number of people who thanked me for their thank you notes.
I began to realize that people truly are moved by sincere expressions of gratitude. Furthermore, like any other art, writing such notes is not an innate ability, but rather one that can be learned and heightened through thoughtful practice. Writing lovely, true, kind thank you notes is good for author and recipient alike. It honors the gift-giver’s generosity while training the receiver in graceful humility, and it ultimately speaks to the value of human beings over material gifts.
My habit of thank you note writing began early under the tutelage of a mother who made sure I wrote a thank you note for every Christmas and birthday gift. No doubt many of these were simplistic, but in my high school years, thank you notes often became an outlet for my burgeoning rhetorical skills. I remember one in particular, written in thanks for a glass apple, in which I waxed eloquent about how viewing the bubbles suspended within the glass inspired me to ponder the rare quiet moments that seemed suspended in time . . . or some similar over-the-top philosophizing.
I expanded my habit of gratitude during my college years when I made it my custom at the end of every semester to write a thank you note to each professor under whom I had studied. Sometimes a small card could hardly contain the effusive gratitude I wished to extend. Sometimes I struggled to find anything both true and gracious to say in thanks.
The school at which I taught for many years also deepened my convictions regarding thank you notes. At least once a year all the students in the school wrote notes of appreciation to staff and volunteers. This was generally a list of about twenty people, and in my early years of teaching I resented “losing” so much instructional time for this tedious task. However, I came to realize that these “lost hours” were in fact more intense training in Christian virtue and habits than anything else I could have taught. They were also opportunity to sharpen children’s writing skills, although a few howlers inevitably slipped through despite teachers’ best efforts—such as the note from a young student to the school janitor that simply read “Thank you for toilets,” accompanied by appropriate illustration!
In my adult life, I have realized that thank you notes provide a wonderful forum for honing my own writing skills. Rather than churning out formulaic notes, I consider each to be its own three to five sentence essay. I know that it is highly unlikely any of the recipients will be comparing thank yous with one another, but I nevertheless strive to make each note unique, changing at least a few words, even when offering thanks for identical gifts.
Undoubtedly, I sometimes waltz into unnecessarily grandiose verbiage, and at other times I stumble over an awkward sentence opening that must be finished somehow or other. But so what? Thank you notes are the perfect place for a little language experimentation because they are simultaneously real in purpose yet also suitably ephemeral. They will neither sit unread in stashed-away notebooks nor be scrutinized by others in perpetuity.
In my own practice with thank you notes, I have collected a nice little kit of writer’s tools to color my notes with beauty.
1. Search for Synonyms – One of the simplest ways to improve thank you notes is to seek out synonyms. Start with the adjectives you are applying to the gift. Was it really just nice or great or was it wonderful, fantastic, magnificent, terrific, perfect, or so on? Remember, too, that synonym replacements needn’t be a one-to-one word substitution. Find other phrases that will express basic ideas, such as (instead of the inevitable thank you), I am so grateful . . .; You were so kind . . .; It was thoughtful of you . . .; My heart is filled with gratitude . . .
2. Use Multiple Sentence Types – Once upon our elementary education, most of us learned the four sentence types: declarative, interrogative, imperative, exclamatory. Here, at last, is a solid, practical use for that knowledge! Using a combination of sentence types perks up a thank you note immediately. For instance: What a blessing you are! How could you have known last Tuesday that I was feeling especially frustrated and in need of some cheering up? The chocolate you left on my desk was heavenly. Please know that your little act of kindness made a big difference in my day.
3. Create an Active Picture – Rather than just expressing thanks for the physical attributes of a gift, write from the perspective of the gift in use. Comment on how the gift helps you, makes you feel, reminds you of the giver, and so on. Compare: Thank you for the purple pen. It is so pretty, and my favorite color! OR Note the lovely lavender ink in which this note is penned. It is thanks to your thoughtful gift! I am smiling right now both because I love the luxury of writing in purple and because this fantastic pen makes me think of you.
4. Shade with Humor – Genuine humor warms the heart. Use a little hyperbole to describe how desperately in need of the gift you were or (a junior high favorite) to imagine how hectic life would be without the services of the note’s recipient. I have even on occasion put my cleverness to the test in creating entirely unconventional thank yous such as an “invoice” tallying up the value of all the services a friend had rendered me.
5. Be Unerringly Truthful, Yet Also Perfectly Kind – I never permit myself to write something that is not true in thank you notes. On the rare occasions when one receives a duplicate of the two-sizes-too-big chartreuse argyle sweater that Aunt Mabel gave last year, this can strain the writing skills to the limits. Gracefully skirt around the disappointing aspects of the gift and find something nice to say. Have you ever felt a sweater so soft? Or could you thank her for the time she put into making the gift? At the very minimum, you can always thank the giver for his or her thoughtfulness.
Ultimately, thank you notes are a way to cultivate friendship. Formulaic thank yous fulfill a social duty, but lovely thank you notes flow from love for the gift-giver. No matter how precious the gift that was given, it pales in comparison with the preciousness of the giver. Thus, the art of writing gracious thank you notes is really the art of valuing others as human beings. Each thank you note written with sincerity is a little attack against selfishness and consumerism. Let’s fill the world with more of them.
Heather Smith is a pastor's wife in rural Illinois, prior to which she was a teacher in a classical Lutheran school in Wyoming and spent time in the Washington, D.C. area working on a master's degree in English. She has an abiding love for reading, baking, deep intellectual conversations, and persistent Lutheran matchmakers.