One time someone did something really nice for me. I was full of gratitude so, naturally, I wanted to thank her. I could have immediately sent a text. I could have taken the extra 10 seconds and sent an email. I could have opened a drawer, pulled out a piece of stationary and written a note. But this was a really, really nice thing she did, so I decided I’d deliver the note with homemade cookies.
I set the butter on the counter to soften and realized I was out of flour. Not to worry, I’d get to the market the next day, get the flour and make the cookies. I went to the market the next day and forgot the flour. When I got home and saw those sticks of very soft butter on the counter, I cursed myself. I put them back in the fridge and within a few minutes I’d forgotten about the cookies altogether.
Two weeks later I ran into the very nice person, and I was mortified. I assaulted her with verbal thanks for the nice thing, but no matter how sincere, thanks served two weeks late is a dish served cold. What I really wanted to do is explain about the flour and my personal tendency to want to go the extra mile, which frequently results in my going no miles at all. I should have sent the text.
Thanking is important. Growing up, thank you notes were a mandatory ritual like any other. You couldn’t open the gift until you’ve read the card. You couldn’t really enjoy a gift until you’d written the thank you note. It was like every gift came with a liability that would take a sheet of paper and 90 seconds to repay. At age 5, writing thank you notes was probably my first lesson in accountability.
A thank you is the end of a transaction. Someone gave, you thanked. In cases where a gift wasn’t delivered in person, the thank you note serves as a return receipt, an acknowledgment of delivery.
A woman once asked me to read and comment on a draft of her book. I did and returned my comments by email. Now this was not a thank-you-note situation, but I did need some sort of acknowledgement. For a week I had sort of a dangling feeling, worrying that the email had been lost, hacked or rerouted. I finally broke down and emailed her to see if she’d received my comments. She replied: “I did, thanks.” Apparently she’d run out of flour too.
You have to be careful that thanking doesn’t take on a life of its own. I scratch my head at the thank you gift. Like when someone thanks you by bringing you a present. What to do? You have to acknowledge it because it was nice of them and also because it was probably left by your front door. The first thought a person has when they’ve left flowers on someone’s doorstep is: Did she just tell me she was going on vacation? If it’s cookies, their first thought is raccoons.
So in acknowledging the thank you gift you start to wonder where it will stop. I’m careful not to use the actual words so that it doesn’t come across as “thank you for the thank you.” You never want to mix sarcasm with gratitude. I go with something like: “These brownies are delicious.” That roughly translates to: “The raccoons did not get them.”
So my kids (mostly) write thank you notes. They are not always moving works of gratitude, but they (mostly) get it done. But on the occasions that I wait to mail them until we have prints of the photos from the birthday party to enclose with the note, no one gets thanked.