Op Ed

Thank You Notes (Part 2): Thanks, But No Thanks

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.

No Thank You
You can get these cards here. I'll take one million.

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.

Peanut Butter Cheesecake bites
These beat the tar out of thank you cards. Seriously.

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.

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

30 replies on “Thank You Notes (Part 2): Thanks, But No Thanks”

In relation to #4–Crafts! You utilize the pretty front or maybe the beautiful cursive handwriting that wrote your name to make…. ANYTHING! I’ve been doing a lot of collages lately to re-cover old notebooks so that I can keep using them and enjoy looking at them.I basically cut out a lot of stuff I like and throw some random newspaper in the background, mess it all together with a glue stick and then cover the whole thing in clear plastic laminate. It makes all my boring stuff awesomely mine! Most of the cards I have at this point are from my loving mother (sent all the way to Costa Rica!) and so I especially like to have a little reminder of her with me on the front of my agenda or planner when the going gets rough.

Hey, here’s a blog post I did about this craft! Hehehe

But obviously there are a million options. And it’s so much better than throwing away something pretty that could be re-used! :) What do you think?

I just got two thank you cards in the mail today from two good friends (one was for her baby shower, and one for her wedding shower).  I don’t want to open the cards because I feel awkward about it.  Additionally, I see them all the time and know how thankful they are.

However, I love to send thank you cards.  I guess I’m strange.

And now I feel bad about sending you a thank you card once and a babby announcement.  I hope it didn’t weird you out.

I actually do understand where you are coming from.  I didn’t grow up in a family that wrote thank you cards or sent out Christmas cards.  And I like to write them, but I know what you mean when people are obligated to write them.  I thought some of my babby shower thank you cards were so much more heartfelt than others.  What do I say to the teacher I rarely talk to who gave me a cute outfit other than “My child will look so cute!  Thank you for the clothes and coming to my shower.”  What happens when there’s 5, or 10, such teachers?  Do they all get the same note!?  And the teachers I know well got long, very personalized thank you cards.

As much as I do enjoy sending cards, it sure gives me a lot of anxiety.

(And what do I say to the lovely family friend that I really only see once a year, but who sent a check for $50?  What do I say to the couple who gave me a gift at my shower, and then a gift card when baby was born- they already got one card… what if the second one is really similar?  ACK! So glad it’s done.)

Wow, I didn’t realize how many feelings I have about this topic.

Please don’t feel bad about writing this post! I, for one, love it.  I’ve always hated the institution of thank you cards but I could never really put it into words.  But here you did it for me.  When I was younger my mother used to do things for people just so she would be thanked (she had a major martyr complex) and she separated the world into 2 groups of people – those who were grateful for/to her and those who weren’t.  That really disgusted me.  So I grew up with an aversion to being thanked.  I always have to fight the urge to tell people “I didn’t do it to be thanked, I did it because it was a good thing to do (or whatever else you could insert here)”.  I also don’t like the idea that thank you cards are “expected”.  It demeans and cheapens other more sincere means of expressing gratitude.  So I just don’t do thank you cards.  I don’t send them, because I’d rather show my gratitude more concretely, and I NEVER expect thank you cards, because I do favors or give gifts out of love or friendliness, not to get a piece of paper in return.

I guess I just summarized your whole post here…but what I’m trying to say is – I agree with you, and thank you for writing a fun post to put my own feeling into words.  And I won’t send you a card.

This post is really off-putting to me.  Half your reasons for disliking thank you cards are based on your own personal issues, and the other half don’t really stand up.

1) Yes, “thank you” is sometimes empty, and some cultures may not show appreciation for things that the other person should have done anyway.  But sometimes it’s not empty, and sometimes it’s really nice to be thanked anyway.  My husband made me dinner last night even though I was pretty cranky in a cloud of pregnancy-induced hormones, and let me pick whatever I wanted on tv.  I suppose he should have done that anyway, since he’s my husband and he’s the one who impregnated me in the first place, but I still said “thank you,” and definitely meant it, because it was nice & thoughtful.

2) The obligation to send cards certainly doesn’t make all thank you cards meaningless – only the ones that were sent solely due to said obligation.  We sent thank you cards to people who gave us wedding gifts, not because society told us to, but because we truly appreciated them taking the time to choose us something they thought would benefit our new home/family.  It was kind of them, and not required, and we were thankful to have received it.  I’d like to think that our thank you card in response was also appreciated, especially since we actually wrote something personal in them instead of scribbling our names on them without a second thought.  And sure, it can be a pain to go through a stack of cards when you received a bunch of gifts all at once…but come on – you received a bunch of gifts.  A bunch of people all took time to give something to you.  Why all the distaste for taking an equal amount of time – probably less, really – to say thank you for doing that?

3) I would hardly consider thank you cards expensive, unless you’re buying the $7 cards from Papyrus.  You can easily get a package of cards for cheap (I bought a pack of 8 cards for $1 at Target), and if that’s too much, just write a note on plain paper.  All it costs is a stamp, or you can even hand deliver for free.

I really don’t understand how your dislike of thank you cards erupted into such a long post.  If you don’t want to do them, that’s fine, but I don’t get the hate.  It just reads as “look at me, I’m a special snowflake thumbing my nose at society’s expectations” without any real substance behind it other than belligerance for belligerance’s sake.

There is a difference between saying thank you and/or expressing gratitude, and sending thank you cards. The latter isn’t necessary for the former.

This is also an op-ed piece, and one in praise of thank you cards was run earlier in the week.

I certainly didn’t intend for this to come off in a “special snowflake” way – and I am aware that half of these come from my own personal issues.  Which is why I started off with the story from what turned me against thank you cards from the start – because I wanted to make it clear that this was built out of my own experience and nothing more.

I absolutely do not think gratitude is a bad thing.  Absolutely, 100%.  But I do think that the system cheapens the emotions.  And I didn’t say anything about disliking the amount of time it takes to express the gratitude – although I think that shows that the system itself is screwed up, that there is an image of the pile of cards that people can easily latch onto.  I believe in gratitude.  I don’t believe in obligatory gratitude.  I’m sorry if that didn’t come across as I intended it to.

And I do consider thank you cards expensive, and stamps, too.  We are hardly holding our heads above water.  When I can send a note over e-mail, that makes a lot more sense to me.

I don’t consider myself to be belligerent, and I definitely don’t advise belligerence for belligerence’s sake.  I’m bummed that it came across that way.

But… gratitude isn’t supposed to be about you. It’s supposed to be about doing something nice for someone else that makes them happy. If a card makes someone else happy, why crap all over that just because it doesn’t float your boat? If it’s their custom but not yours, again, why not just do something that they appreciate and move on? This is just one of those things that makes me feel like I’m on the wrong planet, because being grateful for someone doing something nice for you is something that shouldn’t be such a flipping burden to express to them in a manner that THEY appreciate. And conversely, if people give you a card but you really don’t appreciate the time, thought, and effort that they made for you, then just tell them not to do so in the future. All this passive-aggressive, all-on-my-terms nonsense is just unneeded drama.

I see where you’re coming from, and I admit that it cheapens it for me as well. But if it doesn’t cheapen it for someone else, and if it is meaningful for them and/or appropriate to their culture/belief system, it seems to be creating a Big Deal out of doing something nice for someone else. I’m not suggesting that we should all be doormats and begrudgingly do things we don’t want to do to please others all the time, but in instances like this, I think it makes us better people overall to suck it up and do something that another human being values and/or would appreciate.

I think I mentioned this in the other post, but I save thank you cards for big favors and gifts, unless the other person is a buisness contact. The buisness ones are motivated by more than just gratitude, sure, but I refuse to feel shalow about that. In everyday life though, I save cards for really big things, like my gradfather co-signing on my car loan or the $100 given to me by the great-uncle I don’t know all that well for graduation. 9 times out of 10 they come with a gift, and they always have personal stuff written in them. But I never have and never will look down on someone for only giving a verbal thanks or a thanks email or whatever.

Welp, as a career writer for Hallmark, I am going to have to defend my profession’s honor.

A written thank-you note bears almost no relation to the many automatic thank-yous we give and receive every day. The occasion of receiving a written thank you is rare enough to make a real impact.

It’s especially nice when you send one in the mail, because for the most part, the postal service is just the way we receive bills and trash. Getting something unexpected and personal can make someone’s day.

I say “unexpected” because for most people, written thank-you notes aren’t an obligation. They are usually a gesture that goes a little bit above and beyond the usual.

Personally, I am most comfortable with the written word: that’s why I spend so much time socializing online. For me, it’s the best way to really convey my feelings, and a thank you from someone else means the most to me when it’s written down.

I like being able to save my cards and letters. They remind me of gifts I wouldn’t have remembered giving otherwise, of lunches out I had almost forgotten. For me, it’s like a time capsule. Or really lazy scrapbooking, maybe.

When I struggled with depression last year, I looked through birthday cards and thank-you notes people had written to me. They were tangible proof that what my brain was telling me–that I was worthless–was simply wrong.

I think there’s also something about personal handwriting that just can’t be replaced. I have thank-you notes my nieces and nephs wrote when they were small, and long letters from my grandmother written in her graceful, quirky hand (because of her arthritis, she’s no longer able to write them.) These hold memories in the way that nothing else can.

I could probably go on, but I need to go to my boss’s presentation. :)

ETA: Environmentally, cards are not much of a problem. Our cards, at least, use virtually all recycled and/or sustainable papers, and they are easy to recycle if you don’t want to save them. If they have a ribbon or something on them, you need to take that off first.

You are definitely right about the written word, and a tangible remembrance – but when I think of thank you cards, I think of piles of cards that are needing to be hastily scrawled out and signed and sent off after graduation.  Which is different than the unexpected personal something, it’s true.

I struggle a bit with tendencies to hoard, so holding on to things carries some extra emotional yickiness with it.  I feel anxious getting rid of things, but I feel more anxious hanging onto them.

I got so frustrated with my most recent job interview, because the address on the interviewer’s business card was for an office that I KNOW he doesn’t actually work out of, and I wasn’t sure if a mailed thank-you card would get to him. So I had to e-mail it, which made me sad, because I know how much I LOVE receiving hand-written cards.

I can relate to this. I was made to send thank-you cards as a kid when I received gifts, but, to my young mind, it seemed weird to write a thank-you card when the gift given to me by Relative X was clearly not something I ever wanted nor liked, and Relative X only gave it to me because they felt obligated by blood. Thank-you cards seemed like an extra step, so much so that I should only give them if I was really thankful.

But, in the case that I was really thankful, I always wanted to express my thanks in a different way.

The first point makes me chuckle, because it makes me think about how I interact with niceties, particularly “thank you.” I try to make a point to tell the person serving me that I hope they have a nice day, and I try to do it meaningfully, because so many people in America view servers as less-than. But there are a bajillion times I say thank you that are because I feel I must.

One thing I do try to do with it, however, is I regularly try to thank my boyfriend whenever he cooks or cleans something. The idea is, he knows that I appreciate it, but after watching my parents fall into the habit of my mom doing all the cooking and cleaning and feeling wholly unappreciated, I want to emphasize that while it is something that families should do for one another, it is not being taken for granted.

He usually does the same for me. It tends to work pretty well.

THIS. Yes, expressing gratitude for a gift or an act of service is the good, and polite, thing to do, but we have many different ways to express gratitude. I’ll call my Nana to say I got that birthday card; I’ll email my friends abroad to thank them for that present; I’ll send a text thanking a friend for having me over for dinner, or – wait for it, it’s radical – say thank you in person. 

An obsession with thank you cards is off-putting, personally.


And then…

“That person never sent me a thank-you card. THEY’RE NOT THANKFUL ENOUGH.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sending a few here and there…but acting like it is a requirement is so goddamn annoying!

Right. And I do think as well that it’s a cultural thing – I’m from a non-American Anglophone culture, and I certainly haven’t felt the same pressure to do thank you cards to death. The only time I’d consider them seriously is if I were to get married and had to thank people for presents but I didn’t actually want to talk to them. Which is not really a ringing endorsement…

I don’t like doing thank you notes. I’d rather not get gifts at all if I have to write thank you notes for them. I agree with every single reason you listed. I hate feeling obligated to thank someone for something I didn’t ask for in the first place. I’ll say thank you if I’m thankful, and it will be much more heartfelt than if I’m forced to churn out fifty cards thanking everyone for thinking of me. Especially when I didn’t really care if they thought about me in the first place.

I think the whole convention is kind of stupid, because it really doesn’t show anyone true gratitude. It’s just something you’re supposed to do, so it loses all meaning. I’d never be insulted about not receiving a thank you note for anything. And while I’m paranoid about offending people, I don’t usually send thank you notes.

Number Two is a big one for me.  I love writing letters and giving gifts, but when it is done out of obligation…uggggghhhh.   All of the joy is removed.  I have always been annoyed by thank you cards, but more recently I’ve been grumpy about Christmas and birthday gifts.  Mr. Nonsense and I have moved away from getting each other gifts on special occasions and just doing things for each other when the mood strikes.  Now if I could only extend this notion to family members….

Oh and I love it when you give a gift to a person, they then thank you in person, and then ALSO send you a thank you card (read showers here).

As I said before: thank you cards have never been a presence in my surroundings. I’m raised to say thank you for the things you need to be thankful for and I don’t have any problem with that. With a card I would – like you – overthink it. Does the receiver think I’m trying hard, did they spoil me with the thing I’m thankful for, does the card look pretty enough, what if I will get a thank you card in return of my thank you card?

So I’m fully on board of this. Thank you in words and gifts and dates.

I, for one, am thankful that someone else does not send thank you cards, because I always feel like an ungrateful person for not sending them. But I thank people in emails! In person! In song and dance (truth!)! IS THAT NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU PEOPLE WHY DO YOU WANT A SHITTY CARD THAT WENT THROUGH THE POSTAL SERVICE????

Seriously, though, I’m with you. I prefer to express my thanks in ways that are not so card-y.

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