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Against Thank You Cards

I think it is appropriate, at this late hour in human civilization, to make the case for abolishing the cult of thank you cards. I have not yet heard a good and convincing defense of thank you cards that does not rely on cheap sentimentalism and hidebound traditionalism, two virtues poorly suited to defending anything.

Thank you cards are a mainstay in our culture. After every special event and occasion, after every instance in which a gift is exchanged under some celebratory circumstances, the recipient is expected to handwrite thank you notes within a year, sometimes hundreds of them, each one of those notes generally following an absolutely banal and tedious formula: “Dear [gift giver], thank you so much for [gift]. We’re really looking forward to [using gift in the way it’s supposed to be used]. Thank you so much for coming to [event]. See you soon! Love, [gift recipient].” Lick, stamp, post, repeat for every last platter and wok.

The straightforward truth is that nobody likes writing thank you cards. In fact, I suspect almost everybody positively hates doing it. It is tedious and unfun. Grinding out note after note of identical, monotonous pro forma gratitude is not a pleasurable pastime, nor even a merely dull one; it is a good old-fashioned nuisance. Why else does tradition allow for a year in which to do so? The unpleasantness of the whole affair is built into the very custom.

Nor is it the case that very many people enjoy receiving thank you cards. They are not really meant to be enjoyed. A thank you note functions as a sort of genteel signifier: “I did this, there you go, it’s done, you can’t say I didn’t do it.” How do we know this? Because that’s how we all write thank you cards. When we receive a thank you note we know the spirit in which it was written and sent, because most of us do it in the same way: We work our way down the list, checking off each family member, grumbling and checking again to see how many more we’ve got left to complete. When you receive a thank you note, you know that it was produced with this same weary sense of duty.

Contrast that with the marks and letters of true gratitude you’ve received in your life. They are by necessity rarer, but they are self-evidently genuine and thus infinitely more precious and treasurable than the “Thanks for the kitchen shears” note you got last fall. Real gratitude is not something we give people a year to express, because people don’t want a year to express it; they want to pour it onto the page immediately to communicate how deeply and honestly they’ve been touched. A real thank you letter radiates sincerity. “We are going to love using the new towels you got us!” does not.

I am not the only one to have noticed this. Several months ago, the writer Laura Turner shared a novel gift her friends had given her at her baby shower: “The gift of no thank you notes.” Turner was freed from having to write endless thank yous for the gifts she received at her shower. This is a particularly wonderful thing to give new parents, who self-evidently have a great many more important things to do than write a note thanking you for a soap dispenser.

But the cult of the thank you card remains strong, to the point that there are more than a few people who are honestly offended at the idea of not receiving one. According to one commentator on a wedding website: “It is inexcusable to not write a thank you note. I’m to the point that if I don’t get a thank you note, there won’t be future gifts.” Writing of people who don’t send thank-you cards, another said: “I would drop these ‘friends’.” Another, grousing over her husband’s family’s unwillingness to write thank you notes, wrote: “In every other social circle … everyone is diligent with thank you cards.”

‘Diligent,’ mind you. In no other context would gratitude be taken as evidence of conscientiousness, as if it were comparable to mowing the lawn or clipping the dog’s nails.

It is a strange thing to feel entitled to a thank you note. Do you really care that much? If so, why? I have given many gifts over the years and it never occurred to me to expect anything at all in return. My friendships and family relationships have never hinged on it either way. I have never been bothered by the lack of a thank you card and I am baffled by those who are.

We should drop this silly convention. There is little point to it, and even less moral merit. We can, and should, express real thanks when the moment calls for it; it is entirely worthwhile to say thank you when it is heartfelt and emphatic. Let’s learn to tell the difference, and stop expecting each other to mistake obligation for gratitude.

 

Daniel Payne is an assistant editor with The College Fix. His work has been featured in USA TodayNational ReviewThe Federalist, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and elsewhere. He publishes the newsletter Trial of the Century. He lives in Virginia with his wife and son. 

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58 Comments

  1. I hate writing thank you notes as much as the next person – but that’s because I *don’t* write formulaic thank-yous and it can take me a half hour to write one. The author apparently has come across only formulaic thank you’s and believes that this how all of them are.They are not. I have received so many beautiful heartfelt thank you notes over the years–a few are so moving, I’ve saved them.

    The author says to stop mistaking obligation for gratitude. He is the one doing that. Even a formulaic thank-you is a mark not of obligation but of gratitude (unless they’re 8 at a birthday party–perhaps this is what the author refers to???).

    I do find though that the depth of gratitude in the thank you is directly proportional to a) the emotional maturity of the recipient and b) the depth of the relationship/ meaning of the gift/ meaning of the guest.

    So if you’re invited to a co-workers wedding out of courtesy and buy them an item off their list and smile at them a couple of times, you are more likely to get a formulaic thank you–because you yourself were formulaic. But if you were a bride’s maid and spent a year on all the activities associated with the wedding, then you are far more likely to get a moving thank-you, because your interactions were moving.

    Regardless though, the thank-you’s purpose is to express gratitude by acknowledging the gift-giver’s generosity. To abolish the thank-you note would make narcissists of everyone. The example you give of letting the young parent not have to do thank-you’s is specific to that small sample; it’s about the only time I think that sort of ‘gift of no thank-you’ is appropriate. Even then it should be given freely by the givers.

    I’m sorry the author has never experienced a genuinely felt thank-you note, but that is no reason to abolish them. Perhaps he should try writing one himself, and he will see the difference.

    • If your friends and family were aware of how much you “hate writing thank you notes,” as you put it, then I can’t imagine they’d consider them “genuinely felt.”

      • @Daniel Payne, You’re taking my words too narrowly. I hate doing a lot of things that are necessary and even desirable. I hated waking up three times a night to nurse my babies. I often hate driving to work. I hate visiting dying friends. On that topic, I hate funerals, period. I really hate mowing the lawn but gosh that grass grows. You get my point, I hope.

        • I get you…sort of. The difference is, nobody has any allusions about how we feel about mowing the law, or driving to work, or visiting dying friends. It all sucks. We *all* pretend, on the other hand, that the average thank-you card is written in a spirit of gratitude rather than the mindset that you yourself admit to feeling.

          The ostensible point, as you note, is to “express gratitude by acknowledging the gift-giver’s generosity.” But be honest: How good does it feel getting a thank-you card and knowing that the other person really didn’t like writing it? It sucks. So why even do it?

      • Christopher Moss says

        Against Thank You cards? – couldn’t agree more. Such cards are a short cut to actually expressing thanks, and an expensive way of expressing our feelings. Any form of commercial greeting card is a bought substitute for the real thing.
        The real thing takes a sheet of notepaper, an envelope, a pen (and a stamp if you can’t be bothered to hand deliver or live far enough away). It also takes a little time and mental effort. Given that you have something to be thankful for, the time and effort you expend will be less than the time and effort (and likely the expense, too) that the receiver expended on you when they hosted you or gave something. For goodness’ sake, don’t you see we say thank you when we are given something? If saying thank you cost more than the gift received we wouldn’t say it at all, would we? And, quite frankly, if you can’t be bothered to write a ‘bread and butter’ note as they once were called, you don’t deserve the bread and butter.
        This is not obscure, not difficult, not complicated. It is simple arithmetic. It may be beyond you, and if so you ought not be surprised to find no one wants to invite you or give you presents.

  2. Peter Kriens says

    @d just curious, are you female? I see a huge difference in this area between the women and men in my life. (I sympathize with the author and he is also male. Anecdata, but still.)

    • Haha yeah I’m a woman. Hmm…. It is more a girl way of communicating, I’ll give you that!

  3. Abolish them, eh? I imagine the author also opposes *saying* “thank you” since sometimes it’s said perfunctorily.

    I will give up writing thank you cards when you tear them from my cold, dead hands.

  4. So, In short, if something is hard, and there is no immediate personal benefit, don’t do it. The conceit here is impressive. But as I assume the writer here is familiar with a higher level of thinking, I’ll let Hayek say it better.

    “There is a great deal of implicit knowledge involved in habits, rules & traditional customs that, before we understood them, were regarded as irrational. We are now beginning to understand that such things may have persisted because they were in fact rational & useful.”

    • I agree. We do some unpleasant things because it makes life pleasant for others. If I do the dishes for my bf he knows I don’t do it because I love doing dishes I do it because I love him… and I love a world with clean dishes

  5. I refuse to write thank you cards. I thank the person in person. Not good enough? Fuck you.

    And please no holiday, birthday or anniversary cards.

    If women want to do this card shit, fine, but don’t expect men to participate.

    • ga gamba says

      Add that to the tally of women’s uncompensated “emotional labour” hours. When will the government finally cut cheques to rectify this? Don’t even get me started about women thinking of and managing children’s play dates. That’s gotta be worth billions.

      • I’m a woman and I think that these perfunctory old fashioned cards are stupid and I refuse to follow them precisely because they are uncompensated emotional labour. Women can ‘opt out’.
        I thank people in person, or call them personally to thank them individually. Much more personal, environmentally friendly, and one less box to check.

  6. Andrew says

    Can you please provide your address so I can writ a thank you letter for this article?

  7. Farris says

    “I have not yet heard a good and convincing defense of thank you cards that does not rely on cheap sentimentalism and hidebound traditionalism, two virtues poorly suited to defending anything.”

    Often Thank you Cards are the only acknowledgement the gift sender has showing the gift was in fact received. Not all internet or store shipments arrive, despite the purchaser having been billed. On more than one occasion (okay 2 actually) the lack of acknowledgement alerted us to the fact that the gift was never received.

  8. E. Olson says

    The whole economy would collapse if obligatory gift giving and thank you note responses were eliminated – think of the gift and card industry employees that would be out of work if gifts weren’t expected with every invitation for a wedding, birthday, baptism, graduation, anniversary, etc. – especially when the gift recipient is a rarely seen co-worker, distant cousin, or other person you don’t really know or care about. Think about the poor postal employees that would be out-of-work if invitations were sent only to the few people that you care enough about to only want the gift of their presence at your “big” event, and would therefore require no reciprocal thank you note. In such a world, gifts would only come from people that really love you and know enough about you to pick a useful/desired gift, and thank you notes would be rare and truly heart-felt – perish the thought.

  9. “… on cheap sentimentalism and hidebound traditionalism, two virtues poorly suited to defending anything.”
    This one time only that I’ll comment but won’t bother to read the article, the above lead-in is enough, thank you.

  10. This seems a holdover of a basic protocol, that the thank you note let the gift giver know you received it. When done in person, a hug and thank you statement seems the most real, genuine and appreciated. The key is to express your gratitude, not buy cards, scribble on them, mail them, and then have them discarded by the recipient (gift-giver).

  11. There are a lot of traditions that need to be adjusted as circumstances change. I find receiving a list of desired items at some expensive store offensive, especially when the bride and groom have been living together for years. That kind of situation is where the least I expect is a perfunctory acknowledgement.

    For both my daughters, we told wedding guests to get something that was meaningful to them, personal and would be remembered because of who the giver was. Some did choose cash, but close family and friends chose some stunning gifts, and I know they were from the heart – from special bath towels to carefully selected artworks to a string of Rajistani rubies for the bride. I know the thank you notes were hard work, but they too were from the heart,

  12. Charlie Steele says

    I personally feel that the world would be a better place if people didn’t believe expressions of gratitude to be an onerous burden.

  13. what a graun-level first world whinge of an article from yet another boorish sounding american. simple etiquette is so oppressive! let’s save time & energy by inventing a thank you grunt & emoji.

  14. Dear Quillette and Friends, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, wedding and baby showers … can be all summed up in one word: Gimmefests! No thank you, want no parts of the racket. i know more than a few people who spend money on people who really don’t give two hoots about them- and these same gift-givers don’t have the money to pay their utility bills on time. All for what! Showing off, that’s what.

  15. X. Citoyen says

    What are you 15? This crap belongs in what passes for newspaper op-eds nowadays. And it’s why I dropped my subscriptions.

    • I thought the author had to be very young, as well. Why Quillette published it is another question altogether.

  16. Robert Rickman says

    Perfunctory? No. I quite enjoy both receiving and sending thank-you cards. Recently, I received a thank-you card from a friend who had invited us to their child’s birthday party. I put off reading it until the weekend because I wanted to take the time to enjoy it on Saturday morning. The card was simple, the note was hand-written and, dare I say, sentimental. Frankly, there’s far too little gratitude being expressed in this narcissistic world we live in and I think we’re would all be better if we found more reasons to be grateful and expressed that gratitude more frequently.

  17. Daniel says

    Quillette readers, I’m disappointed. I fully expected all the comments to be Thank You notes to Daniel Payne…

  18. Innominata says

    I would like to suggest there are layers of signaling going on here that make this quite interesting:

    “Happy wedding! Here’s a gift. Among other things, it shows I’m willing to sacrifice two Benjamins and a shopping trip on top of a Saturday sitting in the sun wearing a suit to show you I’m your ally. It also demonstrates I’m able to accomplish extra activities in addition to the normal adult workload, which is impressive. It further signals to anyone who looks that we are both rich enough to waste money throwing luxury goods at each other that perhaps no human being has ever really needed. Behold! A sterling silver cracker holder!”

    And in return:

    “We copy the cracker holder. Here is a written thank-you note to pin on your fridge where all visitors of consequence will “happen” to see it. The note will show among other things (1) you are popular enough to get invited to lush weddings with attractive people (please note inserted wedding photo); (2) you and your friends are wealthy enough to send embossed, heavy paper thank-you cards to each other; and (3) you were able to spend two Benjamins on somebody you know from work, which means you are indeed a high roller and very desirable as both a friend and mate.”

    Yeah, you could dispense with the thank-you cards. Go ahead: take away your friends’ Gifting Diploma, their Certificate of Lavishness, their proof on letterhead in someone else’s handwriting that they bought something stupid for a lot of money and gave it to someone they hardly know. See what that gets you.

    On the other hand, telling the giftee as a group that she doesn’t have to send thank-yous is BRILLIANT. “Ahem: we all acknowledge as a group to each other we are so popular and modern and rich that we don’t even NEED the thank-you hanging on our fridge to show the bitch sister-in-law we know expensive, pretty people. We have Facebook for that. Happy baby shower!”

  19. Falerea says

    I think this article applies especifically to American or Anglo culture. In most parts of Europe, this is not an habit.

  20. Christine Wawryk says

    As a platform for Free Thought, Quillette and this author are able to write and post whatever they think fit. As a free and thinking reader, I choose to not read anything else by this author on such trivial matters.

  21. Avid Reader says

    Dear Quillete,
    This is a letter to express my thanks for posting the op ed “Against Thank You Cards”.Thanks to this platform I now know to skip over Daniel Payne’s by- line in the future, safe in the knowledge that I won’t be missing out on any clever, penetrating insights into the issues of today. Keep up the good work.

    Yours sincerely
    Avid Reader.

  22. Good luck.
    To help us navigate the very complex societies we live in, we use a certain amount of social norms and unwritten rules. Some are annoying.
    I have a similar problem with business emails. Why the hell do I have to start with an “how are you?” or a “I hope this email will find you well”? And them finish off with a “best regards” or something of that sort. And English emails aren’t the most complicated, specially if destined to another non native speaker. However the emails in my native language are really bothersome. First , how should I address someone? we still use sometimes the “excelentíssimo(a) sr/sra” which can translate like” your excellency”; good morning/good afternoon/thank god I don’t work nights…and then the need to be overly polite in order to waste as much time as possible.
    I wish I could just write: hi Larry! I need a price for X. The end.

  23. You can go to a site thnak-you-note-samples.com . They have a thank you note generator. Here’s me thanking Chantall for a gift of a pet giraffe:

    Dear chantall,

    Thank you for the unusual a pet giraffe with a wodden leg. It’s delicious! I will think of you every time I use it. It was so considerate of you to think of me on my birthday.

    Thank you thank you thank you!

    All the best,
    jorge

  24. ga gamba says

    Save money at Christmas by returning last year’s cards to the sender with the simple inscription, “Same to you”. And if you know the sender’s birthday, do so for those cards too.

  25. francisluong says

    It is only the people who have no personal boundaries and write thank you cards from obligation that have a problem with it.

    Express your gratitude however you like. But make it yours. Even if it’s a thank you card.

  26. Peter Piper says

    When you say “thank you for the towels”, youre really saying:

    “I acknowledge that you sacrificed time and effort to give me something I need. The time and effort to write this thank you is a down payment on my future reciprocation.”

    There is nothing trivial about that. If your expression of gratitude is experienced as bitter necessity and tedium, that says more about you than it does about thank you cards. If your response to being thanked is one of eye-rolling at social norms, maybe you gave the gift for the wrong reasons.

  27. Helena says

    I like writing thank you notes. It comes easily to me. I like my stationery and I get to use sealing wax and my sunburst seal. I never use it
    when paying the phone bill. That would be pretentious. A few words thanking someone for the lovely dinner even though I’ve
    already thanked them when leaving, it’s a nice thing to do. Now take the Bar Mitzvah girl who had 150 guests and had to hand
    write at least 100 notes – not email them, she must have had a rude awakening. Guests received the thank you cards 10 months after
    the event. Her parents, who obviously put no social pressure on her or taught her why writing the cards is the appropriate thing to do, had the printed cards to match the invitation so they had to be sent out. When she felt like it.

    Notes are a nice thing to do. Nice. Kind. Thoughtful. Now stop sending birthday text messages and call the people. And call your parents on the phone and tell them you love them.

  28. Aylwin says

    Drop the stupid formulaic gift giving in the first place. Baby showers? Ugh. Weddings that cost years worth of savings and demand (by social convention) the banality of the agonise-shop-wrap-giftnote-deliver-thankyoureply ridiculousness. Ugh. The origins of the rituals were (and are in some circumstances) to help those in need during a practicality demanding life transition, which was fair enough. But it’s now just unbearable, shallow, shit-culture.

  29. Geneviève says

    I absolutely love writing thank you cards. It’s a chance for me to re-live the experience of receiving the gift (item or hospitality) in my mind, cherishing the memory of it, and either growing or strengthening the bond with the person I’m thanking. I also make a point to buy beautiful stationary with decorative items like washi tapes, etc. to personalize the note even further. In addition, I have really nice penmanship and enjoy using it as I hardly ever get to communicate by way of a pen anymore. The whole thing is meaningful and artistic experience for me. However, I do realize not everyone is into that, so I don’t expect cards from others. If you don’t like to communicate thank yous in writing, use your voice instead.
    May we never live in a society where expressions of gratitude are considered worthless or useless. And if you find the gesture boring, too bad. Some of the most important “labours of love” we do in life are boring and tedious. Our dedication to them regardless of the work involved is what matters.

  30. Virginia L. says

    I have a 9-year-old card-making blog … I make and send lots of thank-you cards. Keep your advice to yourself. Thanks very much.

  31. Dark Matter says

    “Quillette is a platform for free thought. We respect ideas, even dangerous ones.”

    I can think of few ideas more dangerous in my family than that of a missed thank you (or other sentimental) card. Two years ago, a missed Mother’s Day card caused me to have the most emotional, earth-shattering fight with my father that I’ve ever experienced.

  32. Alex Russell says

    I don’t care if a get a thank you note or not, but if I’m around in person a verbal thank you is nice.

    What I don’t like is all these made up occasions that seem designed to extract gifts, and people who do not seem know that inviting someone to an event does NOT obligate them to get a gift. You’ve been invited for the pleasure of your company, not the expectation of a gift.

  33. I must be old school because I believe they still have their place. I have a box of them in my office drawer and send them out to folks that have helped with projects, work obstacles, worked long hours through a tough stretch, etc. I also use holiday cards to thank various departments for their support through out the year and that’s it’s greatly appreciated. One of the plus sides is that most of those folks have stated that they are more apt provide any assistance needed to my group before others because I’ve taken the time to express my gratitude, even it’s been a simple one sentence thank you.

  34. Christine Moruza says

    The original purpose of he thank-you note was to let the giver know that you received the gift–not that you were grateful for it. Over time, thank-you cards were applied to everything, even gifts given in person, where thanks were also exchanged in person, and there was absolutely no need to let the giver know his gift arrived. So, no wonder this writer is sick of them. But, if Grandpa mails you a check, and you don’t let him know in a brief note or phone call that you received it, better not expect another one, stupid.

  35. Ashley says

    The only thing thank-you cards make me feel is very mild regret because the person that sent it to me will not ever likely receive one from me in return.

  36. Veronika says

    In my (European) country, fortunately, no thank you cards are expected. I hope this stays so in spite of many American, no, consumer traditions creeping in every day: candy on Halloween, goodie bags on children’s birthdays (hey, you’re invited, enjoy, why is the birthday experience not enough?), gifts on virtually every occasion one is invited somewhere.. why can’t we just meet to talk without having to exchange crap? These are all *new* cultural have-tos that I didn’t have to deal with 10 years ago.

  37. Katherine says

    I’ve heard that work is love made visible. Maybe cards are love made papery.
    Of course they’re easy to satirize but I vote we keep the thank-you cards alive. Some of the gift-givers might be lonely, or might have stretched financially to buy your gift, or might be unsure whether you really like it (and if you don’t, you’re not going to tell them, are you? No number of wild horses should pry that from you). In all these cases, and more, a thank you card is appreciated.
    Think of all the boring repetitive push-ups or whatever you do in the cause of your physical fitness. Maybe these card-writing duties will make you socially buff (and if you put real thought into personalising them, even emotionally / empathetically buff as well…)
    Thanks for an article on a lighter topic, and for the funny comments, readers…

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