The Things That Define Us (Words and Work)

A Pen and Paper for Thank You Notes

In November of 1994, President Ronald Reagan notified the nation that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  After sharing his reasons for making the news public, and asking for the public’s support of his wife, Nancy, the letter pivots, and becomes a note of thanks:

In closing, let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your president. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

The letter addressed to 263 million Americans was hand-written.

While we may not expect President Reagan to have personally typed the letter on an Compaq personal computer, it could have easily been dictated and typed (and re-typed) to ensure regimented clarity for future generations. Instead, the drafted lines drift upwards and to the right, and we can imagine the President’s hand naturally curled around the paper.  On the second page, there is even a inked-out redaction, as he decided to change words or perhaps grammar, demonstrating the person behind the pen.  The point being that it was a deliberate and humane choice to communicate this very personal diagnosis, and heartfelt thankfulness, by hand.  

Twenty-two years later, we have many new options for written correspondence and expressions of appreciation.  Email, text, and instant messaging on social media and other applications (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Snapchat, WeChat, etc.) have almost overhauled our use of the postal service (and clearly redefined our use of the "telephone").  All of these new technologies allow for much faster interaction, and allow words to be sent and read at convenient times.  However, none of these tools offer a personal glimpse of the sender: whether it be the gentle slope of the author’s lines, the occasional quirky misspelling, or the slight quiver of penmanship.

Moreover, as we grow accustomed to today’s unrelenting flood of communication, we begin to lose our patience, and no longer pause to reflect on a sender’s true purpose and emotion.  We may instantly delete, file, or simply misplace the note, as it is swiftly swallowed by the torrent of communiqués that undoubtedly follow.  A sincere letter of gratitude is filtered and processed alongside this season’s newest fashion trend - now offered at 20% off - and with free shipping.  

By contrast, the hand-written thank-you is deliberately physical.  It must be opened by hand and purposefully removed from its protective envelope.  The note is ceremoniously unfolded and attentively considered.  As a result, it will often be saved – thoughtfully presented on the reader’s desk and revisited several times, only later to be carefully filed (so as to be reread) with similar cards and correspondences.  

We must not disregard the affects of physically writing the letter on the author, as well.  Writing by-hand on a purposefully selected card or stationary requires us to dramatically slow down during our frantic day. We are forced to consider our words before we begin to compose, and the measured pace provides us time to reflect on our feelings of gratitude.  So, the letter does not just express thanks, it also promotes our own sensation of thankfulness.  Of course, we first have to choose to write a thank-you note in the first place.  Many of us are initially thought to thank our family members...  

In his book, 365 Thank Yous: The Year A Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life, lawyer John Kralik tells of a simple New Years resolution that would change his outlook on life.  He explains how, as a child, his grandfather encouraged the importance of thank you notes.  As he would often give his grandson a silver dollar to impress them, he would then double his gift, promising “that if I wrote him a letter thanking him for this silver dollar, he would send me another one. That was the way thank-you letters worked, he told me.”  

Mr. Kralik’s grandfather was literal in his approach and encouragement (he did send a second silver dollar the receipt of the thank-you note), but the sentiment is true in business as well.  While companies try to gain the attention of the customer, spending millions of dollars on analytic studies, big data research, and endless email campaigns, we might consider that the anachronistic hand-written note may be the simplest way to win and keep a client.  

Hopefully, monetary rewards aren’t our only motivation.  But even still, the hand-written thank-you note has a way of making us contemplate our intention and our gratitude.  So, whether we practice on friends or clients, with each one we write, we are reminded of our own humanity.


Additional Reading:

Perfect Thank You Notes (NPR)

The Found Art of Thank You Notes (The New York Times)