28 June 2006

Whatever Happened to Thank-You Notes?

Perhaps Brad Morris' friends just weren't that thankful.

Sure, their marriage ceremony in Las Vegas went off without a snag. Morris journeyed there from Frisco, Texas, and gave the couple, his pals from work, a generous gift: a crisp $100 bill.

About a month later, he got an e-mail - a mass message from the bride's Yahoo account addressed "Dear friends," or some such. It thanked the group for attending the wedding and for "all the nice gifts," Morris recalls.

That was it - no monogrammed Crane stationery, no ballpoint pen signature, not even a stamp. The e-mail was his thank-you note.

"It was cheap and pitiful," says Morris, 34. "I would just as soon have received no thank-you as to receive that."

In fact, that's what many generous Americans will receive during this season of giving: absolutely nothing in return. This time of year, when virtually everyone owes someone a thank-you, many people assume that if they open a present in the presence of the giver, no formal thank-you is required.

Even when it comes to expensive baby shower and wedding gifts, the thank-you note increasingly is becoming the thank-you not. Putting fountain pen to ecru eggshell has just about gone the way of plunking IBM Selectric keys onto onion skin.

It's not just that people don't write as many personal notes as they used to. Today, when gratitude is expressed in writing, it's often done grudgingly, as obligation rather than art - via a casual card or e-mail with a generic, hastily scribbled message: "Thank you for the present."

The trend is a reflection of how Americans' short attention spans and electronically wired lives - combined with a diminished mindfulness of etiquette - have made the USA, well, a pretty ungrateful nation.

Faced with such transgressions of taste, what would that guru of good manners, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, do? "Faint," says Shelly Branch, co-author of What Would Jackie Do? An Inspired Guide to Distinctive Living.

The impersonal nature of the mass e-mail that landed in Morris' inbox would drive Onassis - who was legendary for dashing off her thank-you notes within 24 hours - to the smelling salts, Branch says.

Such e-mails amount to nothing more than confirmation of a gift's delivery, she says. Instead of conveying appreciation, the sentiment screams, " 'Yes, I got it! Routing number XYZ!' It's horrible."

Since the hip elegance of President Kennedy's Camelot, "we've seen a decline in formality," says Tom Farley, editor of Town & Country Modern Manners: The Thinking Person's Guide to Social Graces. Dressing up for dinner and verbal courtesies such as "sir" or "ma'am" are all but obsolete, to the relief of many.

But standard civility also is being challenged. A 2002 Public Agenda survey found that a plurality of adults (48%) only "sometimes" encountered people who made an effort to say "please" and "thank you"; 16% said they saw such behavior "practically never." In a 1998 Gallup Poll, 30% of adults said they made a point of expressing thanks or gratitude to others only "some of the time."

Fill-in-the-blanks thanks

The thank-you note is another casualty. People use today's informal culture as an excuse to avoid something they simply don't want to take time to do, Farley says. "But there are certain niceties worth holding on to."

One argument why gift-thanking has become so rote, if not rare, is that gift-giving itself has become so mechanized. (Consider the ubiquity of online registries and gift cards.)

That's no excuse, Farley says: "You get this image of (a gift-receiving couple) sitting assembly-line style, the husband licking the envelope and his wife handwriting messages, and it's the same message for all 200 guests. That's not acceptable.

"If you're going to do that, you really shouldn't bother."

The busy schedules and hectic pace of modern life also complicate the tradition of thank-yous.

"People just multitask to the extreme," says Brandi Morrigan, 30, an advertising graduate student in Memphis. "There's not a lot of time to actually sit down and write things" - be it a love letter or thank-you note.

Morrigan says she has received one such note in the past decade, three years ago for a wedding gift of a couple of bottles of wine and some wine glasses. She says the note was on a party supply-store card - "no quality stationery here." Meanwhile, she has given five or so other wedding gifts, to no response.

Americans' obsession with saving time also has fueled another phenomenon that makes traditionalists cringe: The Mad Libs-style, fill-in-the-blank thank-you card: "Dear (blank), Thanks so much for (blank). I love it! From (blank)."

Farley says they're fine for youngsters who can't yet put together a noun and verb. "If this is training wheels for a real thank-you note, I applaud it. If the child is 7 and still using this formula, it's like they're still in diapers. It's the lazy way out" - for kids and adults.

A company called Knock Knock - in a nod to today's fast pace and the plummeting position of manners on our collective priority list - offers "Etiquette the easy way!" with its Multiple-Choice Correspondence. With a wink, Knock Knock says its cards show recipients that "someone cared enough to check off just the right phrases for you."

The company's cards thank gift-givers for, say, "the unexpected surprise" or "the cold hard cash." They're a fun and cheeky way to thank a neighbor for feeding the cat for a weekend, Farley says, but not to show gratitude to Grandma for a hand-knit sweater.

Indeed, elegant writing supplies are getting harder to find, says J.A. McErlean, 51, known in his social and professional circles as the last aficionado of fountain pens (always black ink, often Montblanc) and embossed paper.

Since his local fine stationery store closed several years ago for lack of business, McErlean, a physician from Farmington Hills, Mich., has had to buy his name-engraved paper in Chicago or St. Louis.

His two college-age daughters? "I don't even know if they know how to write a thank-you note," McErlean says.

"My wife is always on their case when their grandparents send them Christmas presents. About a month later, after a lot of arm-twisting, it gets done."

The scourge, some say, is technology. Tethered to computers, "we're so used to just tapping out everything from the serious to the banal," Branch says.

Note-writing becomes "a little bit scary," Branch says. "You look at it, your penmanship's bad, your lines are crooked, you have to start all over. ... It's somehow safer to send something electronic, even if it's not appropriate."

To Farley, an e-mail is "only remotely" better than sending nothing.

But in a 2001 survey by the Emily Post Institute, 70% of the respondents said e-mailing thank-you notes was appropriate, especially to acknowledge a small gift or gesture.

Much appreciated

Even if they're seldom executed, thank-you notes still are expected in other arenas. A survey in August by CareerBuilder.com found that nearly 15% of hiring managers would reject a job candidate who neglected to send a thank-you letter after the interview; 32% said they would still consider the thankless prospect but that their opinion of him or her would diminish.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of managers prefer handwritten thank-yous, the survey said; 21% seek a typed hard copy, and 19% want e-mailed thank-yous followed up with a snail-mailed letter.

And those e-mail thank-you cards you can get at Hallmark.com or BlueMountain.com? "A big no-no," says Sue Callaway, co-author of What Would Jackie Do? "You have to click through to a website and it's playing some jingle and you're watching a dancing puppy on the screen and you think, 'Why did this person go to the trouble to send me this?' "

Would that Anna-Marie Ganje received one of those musical missives. In the 23 years that she has been sending gifts to her now seven nieces and nephews, she has never heard or read a peep - not a "Thanks, Aunt Anna-Marie!" let alone a "Yes, I got the package, Aunt Anna-Marie."

"Oh, it's totally bad," says Ganje, 41, of Minneapolis, who habitually handwrites her thank-yous, even if only for a tin of cookies.

So this Christmas, she threw down the gifting gauntlet. She tucked into each family's shipping box a note, hand-printed in Sharpie: "If I do not hear a reply from you on receipt of this package, do not expect another gift." Not for Christmas, not for birthdays - nothing. She has yet to get a response, and she doesn't expect to.

"I've just had it," says Ganje, who works for a music distributor. "They should know better, especially when they're old enough to tell you what they want for Christmas." She says she has tried dropping heavy hints to her three younger siblings, asking one of her brothers, for example, whether his kids had received a package of hers. His reply? "Oh, you'll have to ask my wife."

Ganje is incredulous. "My dad always says: 'You were all raised by the same people. Why does one send thank-yous and not the rest?' " Her father, meanwhile, knows that his grandchildren received their gift money only when his checks clear the bank. "It's ridiculous," Ganje says.

Or reasonable, if you're Carolyn Crawford. "Sending a thank-you note that has no thought behind it but to let your relatives from California know that you received the package that they sent the week before through UPS is just as impersonal as not sending one," says Crawford, 23, of Massillon, Ohio.

She was reared by a mother who, the day after Christmas, "would physically sit me down at the kitchen table, put a pen in my hand, and supervise me while I wrote the same thank-you note over and over, only substituting the names and corresponding gifts." The text felt like a script. "I remember thinking, 'They have to realize this says the same exact thing every year.' "

The other day Crawford's mother reminded her to stock up on thank-you notes. But Crawford doesn't plan on it, and she doesn't think her high school students (she's a life-skills teacher) will send them, either.

Crawford recently attended a co-worker's baby shower. "She opened (a photo album), she said, 'Thank you,' and I was satisfied with that." No note necessary.

But a month ago, Crawford received a letter from another co-worker, thanking her for her help with a student project. "I was very surprised," Crawford says. It felt sincere. "It wasn't obligatory and I didn't expect it. She did it because she wanted to."

For Sarah Cowan, the stationery store is her candy store. The thank-you note devotee trawls San Francisco's paper boutiques four times a year, to restock her supply and simply to browse.

"I don't ever want to get a present and feel blasé about it," says Cowan, 25, who works in communications. "Because it's an act of generosity."

Still, when she hands a gift to someone, "part of my present is that I say they don't have to write a thank-you note, because I appreciate that most people don't like to write" them.

Cowan attends a lot of bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, and she's "cheerfully surprised" when she receives a note that's genuine, or at least appropriate - unlike the one her sister got that indicated she was "the only guest who didn't bring a present." (For the record, the gift was in the mail.)

Or the doozy that landed in a friend's mailbox: "Thanks so much for your present. I returned it and got something else and I'm really excited about that." (OK, the author was about 7 years old.)

Too much thanks?

Still, there are signs of a pendulum swing. One of FamilyFun magazine's top 10 toys of the year was a 21-card stationery sampler from American Girl that, the editors say, "may even inspire timely thank-you notes."

But for toddlers, the solution is trickier. Callaway's 2-year-old daughter is on the birthday-party brigade - five in the past three months. The hosting mom often writes a long thank-you "as if it were from their child to my child," says Callaway, of Laguna Beach, Calif. " 'Thank you for coming to my third birthday party. It was so much fun playing in the sandbox. Thank you so much for the books. I didn't have Make Way for Ducklings!' They've gone absolutely overboard" by standing in for their kids.

"I don't think Jackie would have done that."

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