I work in digital media. In fact, I work for a firm that focuses on enterprise cloud transformation (could it get more new age?), and I’m taking grad school classes in things like “Social Media Metrics.” So, as you can probably imagine, I’m all for embracing the newest technologies.

But there’s one old tradition that I think should never go away: the handwritten thank-you note. I’m not just talking about after the holidays and your birthday when you get presents, but for staying at someone’s house, getting good advice or an important introduction, or just simply feeling appreciative toward someone.

Why? In today’s fast-paced world, where emails take too long to write and the U.S. Post Office is practically shutting down, the handwritten note stands out—in a big way. People know how much time it takes to sit down and write (not to mention drop something in the mailbox), and taking that extra effort will impress them more than you know.

 

When is a thank-you note appropriate?

People often wonder when it’s appropriate to write thank-you notes, and my rule of thumb is this: When in doubt, write. Write for gifts you receive (for your birthday, wedding, baby or bridal shower, a holiday, or sympathy), any time you’ve been hosted (at a cocktail party, dinner, weekend stay, or event), and anytime else you feel appreciative of someone or something (when a friend helped you move, let you borrow a great bag, or listened while you coped with a breakup). And definitely write for anything job-related, like if your cousin helped you score a job interview or took time to help you with your resume.

When should I send it?

I’ve always been taught that you should write within two weeks of receiving a gift or attending an event—though there are very different schools of thought (Emily Post’s Etipedia only gives you 2-3 days!). Of course, better late than never certainly applies here (see Emily Post’s video on the matter), but writing sooner not only has etiquette benefits, it also helps you remember details that can be included in your note.

Also, remember that weddings have a slightly different rule, and brides are given up to three months to thank their friends and family for gifts.

How should I address it?

Handwritten thank-you notes are by nature traditional, so it’s always nice to start with “Dear,” instead of just the person’s name (or “hello”—this isn’t email!).

What should I write?

In general, be thoughtful, be thankful, and most importantly—be genuine. Think about what you’d say out loud to thank the person you’re writing to, then translate those words onto paper, aiming for about four sentences.

Depending on what you’re saying thanks for, each type of thank-you note can take a slightly different message:

After receiving a present

Make sure to specifically name what you were given and how you plan to use or wear it. For instance, if someone gives you a necklace, mention that you got tons of compliments when you wore it to work last week. If it’s a check or cash, explain what you plan to use it for, like saving for a vacation this summer, paying off some of your student loans, or scooping up the shoes you’ve been eyeing for months. The recipient will really feel as though the present means something to you.

After staying at someone's home

People take pride in their homes, so make note of that when you’re writing—for example: “I just can’t get over the gorgeous views from your living room.” Or, if you ate during your stay there, try, “The dinner you made on Saturday night was fabulous, and I would love the recipe if you’re willing to share.”

When thanking the host of an event

Whether she invited you to her home or served on a committee that planned a large-scale event, a host always loves to hear that her guests had fun and that her hard work paid off. So, be specific about what you loved about the event. For example, if you were writing to thank the host of a breast cancer fundraiser, you could write, “The pink cosmos and the all pink dessert display were so perfect for the event—and they were delicious! Everyone I spoke to that evening mentioned them, especially the pink macaroons.”

When you’re appreciative of something someone has done

Your mom’s friend set you up on a great blind date, your co-worker covered for you, your boyfriend’s father drove you to the airport—these all deserve notes of appreciation. And in addition to saying thanks, it’s always good to acknowledge that you know the person went out of their way to help you.

How should I end the note?

There are numerous options: sincerely, warmly, best, regards, love, and more. And nothing is right or wrong—simply use what you feel comfortable with based on your relationship with the person. For example, if it’s my father’s friend, I would most likely put “sincerely,” but to my father, I’ll write “love.” If you’re still not sure, I’m always a fan of “warmly” and “all the best.” Both closings portray affection, but without awkwardness.

 

Remember that, no matter the occasion or reason, four quick sentences on stationery mean the world to people. So—antiquated or not—it’s a tradition definitely worth keeping.

Photo courtesy of Ralph Daily.