This is the text of a speech I gave at my Toastmasters club the Friday before Thanksgiving.
In 1988 a columnist for Newsweek disparaged the winning presidential candidate, saying he had “thank-you noted his way to the top.” It was a swipe at his many connections. It was no secret that George H. W. Bush, or Bush 41 as he later became known was an “establishmentarian.” And many observers give partial credit for his winning campaign to his habit of sending a thank you note to every host he and Barbara met on the campaign trail.
As I read that article, that phrase rankled. It stood out so much that I remember it 23 years later. I did not care for the whiff of insult to the thank you note.
Thank you notes are as writer Bob Morris said a “grace note in our age of dissonance.” Thank you notes aren’t just nice. They’re needed – in today’s coarse society, more than ever.
But thank you notes have fallen out of favor for several reasons:
- They’re time consuming to write.
Oklahoma First Lady Cathy Keating wrote thank you notes to everyone who gave after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. She didn’t have time – but she made time – because it was important. She’d write in the car in between appointments, wherever and whenever she could.
- The price of stamps is — well, if they get any more expensive, we’ll just paste dollar bills on envelopes
- The whiff of cynicism that sticks to the act:
Job seekers write thank you notes. Are they sincere – or just selling themselves further?
Nakedly ambitious social climbers write thank you notes to their hosts.
Schemers who want to ensure they stay in the family patriarch’s will always write thank you notes.
A thank you note doesn’t have to be formal. One of my favorite thank you notes, which I sent to a friend, had a picture of Garfield on it with the legend Muchos Gracias! –The inside said, “That’s Spanish for if I were any more grateful, I’d give you my car!”
The Southern girl knows is taught how to write thank you notes. Always include a personal anecdote. As Southern writer Gayden Metcalfe said in her book: Being Dead is No Excuse: the Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, “A Southern girl has to stop herself from gushing more than Old Faithful. If she is writing a thank you note for a toaster, she doesn’t just say thank you, she tells you about every single thing she’s ever toasted in that toaster, or ever will toast.”
What about you – you’re not a cynical job seeker, and you’re not a gushing Southern girl. Why should you write a thank you note?
1) Do it to teach children courtesy. How will they learn, unless they see you modeling it?
2) Do it because it makes the recipient so happy.
Only 3 percent of our mail is personal. Most of the actual mail most people get these days is junk mail. Here’s a sample from my recent haul one day this past week: Several circulars for grocery store ads; ValPak coupons, Three letters from political campaigns begging for donations; A card from the local Goodwill telling me the next day the donation truck would be coming around; flyer from a new restaurant, two bills and a personal card. What do you think I opened first? What would you open first?
Why write a handwritten note – or sign an actual card? You can send an email, and I certainly appreciate a genuine email of thanks.
But seriously – Are you really going to tie a ribbon around emails? Will you save those?
3) Do it because someone needs to hear the words you say. Your thanks may be the encouragement that they need.
4) Do it because the very act of writing a thank you note it turns your thoughts to gratitude. Think of all the corny songs – count your blessings instead of sheep. “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess with Mr. in-Between” as Johnny Mercer sang.
5) And finally – write a thank you note because we’re in the season of giving thanks. Now is the time, when we celebrate the holiday dedicated to remembering how our Founding Fathers gave thanks for surviving their first tough year in the New World. Now’s the time to reach out to someone who has made an impact on your life – and let them know. Thank them for what they’ve meant to you. Is there an old teacher, a mentor, or an old schoolmate who played a significant role in your life? Reach out to them. That “Thanksgiving letter” – a thank you note – will be cherished long after mass-produced seasonal cards are thrown away.
Remember – thank yous aren’t just nice – they’re necessary. They help keep the veneer of civilization on the rough framework of our society.