Full disclosure: once upon a time, in a faraway land, a Beautiful Princess went to her Girlfriend’s cabin for a weekend getaway. When she came back to her regular life, Girlfriend’s mother made a snide comment about the lack of a thank you card. Beautiful Princess was ashamed and hurt, because in her kingdom, there was no need to send a thank you card to somebody for staying in their cabin, especially if you did some light construction work and upkeep in the cabin while you were there, and especially especially when the would-be-recipient was working very hard to convince Girlfriend to date somebody more penis-having.
Unexpected twist: that beautiful princess was me, and the fact that Girlfriend’s mother would consider me to be uncivilized because of a social convention from her world that didn’t apply in mine forever colored the way that I view thank you cards, and, for that matter, Christmas cards, birth announcements, graduation announcements, and thank you cards (twice, because the feeling is twice as strong). It’s not that I’m an asshole (most of the time). It’s that the entire convention of these obligations has, in my opinion, turned the intended sentiment on its head.
So my experience is tainted by a long ago slight, but I have reasons for disliking the thank you card tradition that go beyond that flush of inferiority. Let’s do this in list form!
1) Thank you is so often empty. There is a Russian saying, “Spasibo na khleb ne namazhesh” ““ “Thank you doesn’t butter the bread.” In other words, thank you is nothing more than words. In American culture, we are trained from an early age to say thank you approximately 60 million times per day, and I know I am not the only one who has said “thank you” to a police officer as he handed me a speeding ticket. When I was working in customer service, I regularly heard exchanges of multiple thank yous, customer-server-customer-server-customer-server, neither being willing to leave the conversation without saying thank you one last time.
There are a lot of silly thank yous said out of politeness, but there are also many which are more meaningful. Thank you, husband, for making dinner. Thank you, colleague, for taking over one of my class sections so that I could go to the doctor. Thank you, daughter, for giving me that dandelion. We express gratitude constantly, and I do consider myself blessed to have so much to be thankful for.
When my husband and I were first married, I did something small and unmemorable and nice, and he didn’t say thank you. Being new and bad at marriage, I got pissy and made a big deal out of it. One of his friends looked at me quizzically and said, “Isn’t that what families do for each other?” And the thing is, in our (American) culture, we have a need to express thanks for everything, big and small. In my husband’s (Slavic) culture, expressing thanks as often as we do in America just deflates the meaning from the words. There is no need to thank your husband for making dinner for you, because that is what husbands do. There is no need to thank your colleague for taking over one of your class sections, because you would do the same for her. There is no need to thank your daughter for giving you a dandelion because she ripped you wide open on the way out of you, so she owes you.
2) The obligation to send a thank you card makes the gesture meaningless. When I was little, if I did something particularly mean to my sister (it was often. I was mean), my parents would tell me to say that I was sorry. I would. They would then say, “Say it, and mean it.” I understand where they are coming from now, because there is nothing more infuriating than telling a kid to apologize and then watch them flout your authority by apologizing. But the thing is, you can’t make somebody feel sorry, you can just make them seem like they feel sorry. And the act of forcing them into it makes it nothing more than a gesture.
Thank you cards are often done just because you are supposed to do them, and so there is no point. If you are feeling gratitude for something, and you decide to send a card, great! But is that what really happens with thank you cards? At least in my experience, there is a feeling of obligation that accompanies the feeling of gratitude, and that obligation cheapens the whole gesture. “I have to go home and write thank you cards,” somebody will sigh, and I’ve been there: a pile of cards, a quick note scrawled in each, addressing and addressing and addressing, lick envelope after envelope, stamp stamp stamp, is this really what it means to be thankful?
As much as I hate thank you cards, I love letters. I try to send them often, and for a long time, I was writing at least one letter a day. It’s not that I’m an awful person who hates kindness – I just despise acts of kindness that are obligatory.
3) Thank you cards are wasteful and expensive. Stamps are expensive. Thank you cards are an unnecessary use of paper and ink. Sure, it’s just one card, right? But if you’ve ever gotten married or graduated or done anything else that required gifts from people, and had a stack of cards to write, the waste adds up, fast. With the Internet and easy, wasteless, free communication, and in a world where people carefully rinse out mayonnaise jars before putting them into the recycling bin, why are we adding more trash to landfills?
4) Thank you cards fuck my habitat. Thank God for the Unfuck Your Habitat website, because it made me feel slightly better about this weird dilemma that I put upon myself, but it’s still there. When somebody sends me a card, any card, I feel like throwing it away is akin to telling the person to fuck off. I have cards from years and years ago that I haven’t been able to toss. I’ve gotten better about it recently, but when I get a card in the mail, the first thing I feel is dread, because I know it’s going to be a battle to throw it away. And I live in a one-bedroom apartment with my husband, kid, and dog. We don’t have room for more cards.
5) But the dread goes deeper than guilt about throwing the cards away. When I get a thank you card, the second thing I think about is how many people are probably thinking terrible things about me because I don’t send them. I don’t send them because I hate them, and even if I did send them, there are situations that aren’t even on my radar that I would be missing, and then some person somewhere is judging me for not understanding the rules of the game. And for that, I hate the game.
6) And getting thank you cards makes me feel dirty. I realize that these reasons are becoming less and less rational, but hey, at least it’s a consistent trajectory. When somebody sends me a thank you card, it makes me feel like I only did the nice thing that I did so that I would get something in return. I did the nice thing that I did because I love doing nice things, because it makes me feel good. Getting something in return makes me feel like I sold that nice thing to you in exchange for a card. Let me be selfish and enjoy the feeling of altruism without making me share it with you.
I know that this all makes me seem like an ungrateful bitch, but it isn’t that I hate gratitude. I actually have kept a gratitude diary, just like Oprah told me to when I was 19, because I think there is great value in appreciating the good things that life throws your way, and seeking out good things when it seems like they are scarce. I also try to respond to kindness with kindness, most often in the form of baked goods (OHMYGOD PEANUT BUTTER CHEESECAKE BITES), and to let people know that I love them and appreciate their presence in my life, and I’m one of those annoying people who occasionally pays the toll for the person behind me or stops to offer a ride to people who are struggling with their groceries. But the expectation and obligation of thank you cards, combined with the relative emptiness of the words in general, have turned me into an anti-thank-you-card wench.
So next time I do something nice for you, don’t send me a thank you card. Meet me for coffee so we can catch up, or shoot me an e-mail with a recent picture of your dog, or do a favor for a friend and consider it paying it forward. And please don’t get upset with me if I don’t send something to you; I am not ungrateful, I just try to express my gratitude in different ways.