habit shift: saying thanks.

December 22, 2016

habit shift: thank you notes | reading my tea leavesI have a friend who’s an expert thank you note writer. She sends a handwritten thank you for every occasion you can think of and unlike the significantly reduced but ever-present junk mail in our box, they’re always extremely welcome pieces of mail.

It’s not just her sending a note that’s significant, it’s the particular way she goes about the business, which is to say, by default. No matter whether you’ve invited her for tea, or offered counsel, or bestowed a small gift, she sends a note just a day or two later. The predictability is delightful and far from feeling formulaic or insincere, her notes convey the simple gratitude that we all feel when anyone does anything nice for us. The only difference is that she’s taken a moment to put it down on paper. Her notes repay generosity with more generosity which is the very best kind of cycle to find oneself on.

I grew up in a household where sending a thank you note after receiving a gift was a non-negotiable, but the truth is that I’m publishing this as a habit shift post because I’ve gotten rusty. I’ve been lured by the ease of dashing off a quick email. Afraid that by the time I get around to sending a card that too much time will have elapsed, I’ve sometimes sent a quick text and then forgotten to follow up with a more formal thanks of any kind. If I’ve received something in person I’ve sometimes offered sincere thanks in the moment but never followed up afterward to say how much I cared. There have been other cases, I’m sure of it, when something has wended its way to my door and I’ve forgotten to express my thanks altogether. And of course there are reasons a plenty: work and a kid and the general busyness of it all.

To be clear: Sending an email or a writing a text or making a phone call are all lovely things to do—and I’m not saying that I expect anyone to send a handwritten thank you by post—but I am just acknowledging that it can be a lovely thing to do and it’s something that I’m trying my best to do more often. And no, the irony is not lost on me that in the same space where I’m advocating that we try our best to end the scourge of junk mail, I’m suggesting that folks send more mail of another sort. But human connection is important and knowing that we have a support network even more so. There’s something about receiving a physical piece of mail in your box from a dear friend that feels weightier than a text or an email or, certainly, than forgetting altogether. 
habit shift: thank you notes | reading my tea leavesToward that end, here’s a few ideas for how to get into the habit. If you have others to add to the list, please do:

Keep cards handy: The biggest obstacle to sending a note can be just having something lovely to write it on within easy reach. This December I made a series of thank you cards to send to folks who I’ve worked with this year, but I’ve also restocked the wooden box where I keep stationery supplies with a few simple cards for easy access. (Tip: For the tiny handwriting folks among us, I suggest investing in cards of a proportionate size. No need to up your anxiety by having a humongous card to fill up with perfect prose.)

Buy a stockpile of stamps: My thank you note champion friend truly exceeds all expectations by keeping a stockpile of vintage stamps tucked away in her own tiny apartment. Her letters come adorned with festive postage totaling the current 47-cent first-class rate and the stamps are nearly as delightful as her words. We can’t all be stamp collectors, but we can stock up on stamps and keep them in an easy to reach spot. (In the US, Forever stamps stay current even if stamp rates change so they’re a good option if you’re not a frequent mailer.)

Centralize your address list: For years I used a teeny tiny leather address book that I bought in Italy while traveling with my sister in college. It was too small to be very practical and very much filled to the brim with out-of-date addresses when I switched it to a Google spreadsheet before our wedding. I try my best to keep the spreadsheet up-to-date so I’m not needing to ask folks for their address before I can put something in the mail. (Bonus: Keeping a shared digital list like this one is especially helpful because it takes the onus off just one person in a household to keep track of the addresses and the thank yous. I keep a separate business list, but everything else goes onto the shared list and James and I both update it regularly.)

Don’t over think it: I know there are plenty of people who feel intimidated by crafting the perfect thank you. I say, don’t over think it. Without getting too prescriptive, I think it’s nice to follow a simple formula of saying thanks, mentioning something specific that you love about the gift you’ve been given or the favor that’s been bestowed upon you, and finish with a note of hope or love or general friendship. It doesn’t have to be award winning, it just has to get down on paper and out to the mailbox.

What about you guys? Any thank you habits to share?


In case you want to apply your letter writing skills to inspire some political action, here are two solid resources to get you started:

+ The ACLU’s guide to writing elected officials.

+ The USA.gov resource for how to reach elected officials at every level of government.

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  • Reply Erin December 22, 2016 at 9:21 am

    I used to be so good at this but am also rusty now. Those cards you made are so adorable! They make me smile. Good idea for 2017 – getting back on track with thank you cards.

    Happy Holidays.

  • Reply mnphotobug December 22, 2016 at 9:25 am

    I might add that you can start learning this habit at an early age 🙂 When we were kids, we had a tradition of opening gifts from family members on Christmas Eve, one each hour. As we opened each gift, we weren’t allowed to play with it until we’d written out a thank you note to go along with it. I think because of that I’ve always been in the habit of sitting down right away (or as soon as I can) to write out a quick, thoughtful thank you.
    I totally agree with your advice about having the cards and stamps handy too, it just makes it that much easier!

  • Reply rachael December 22, 2016 at 10:04 am

    Not a big thank you card writer here. For big occasions like showers, and weddings, I will do it but I actually don’t like receiving them!! Same with Christmas cards and birthday cards, I just don’t like them. Did you really just spend money to thank me (or wish my a happy day) for something you’ve already said to my face or on the phone? I’m just going to take your $7 card and put it in the recycling bin. I know I’m in the minority here because some people actually save every card they get but to me I see more “junk mail”. Side note: In Canada it is RIDICULOUSLY expensive to mail a card or letter. $1.13 for one stamp.

    • Reply Mary Kate December 22, 2016 at 1:38 pm

      I tend to agree with you, actually. I do like Christmas cards and birthday cards and end up saving them, but I throw thank you notes away almost immediately. I understand that it’s nice for some people, but for me, thank you notes are mostly a waste of paper, time, and money. To each our own!

    • Reply Sydney December 22, 2016 at 3:37 pm

      I also tend to agree with you guys. I always write a thank you note because I know it is the polite thing to do and sometimes I really do feel it is appropriate to take pen to paper to properly express my sincere gratitude, but I often wonder how many people actually feel strongly that they receive a written thank you.

      I, personally, don’t care at all. If someone thanks me in person/text/email then I don’t think they need to feel obligated to write a note. I also mostly only care about a note/email/text/ etc… if I have sent something to someone I won’t see and therefore won’t know if they got the gift if they don’t send a note or email or some such.

      Anyway, when I give wedding presents, I always write on the card that the couple need not feel that they have to write a thank you note. I know they got the present, and I know that they will have about a million thank you notes to write and it can be overwhelming. I didn’t send the gift to get a thank you. I sent it because I wanted to send it whether the recipient is thankful for it or not.

      I guess what I am trying to say is that I understand and agree with the sentiment of expressing thanks to people. However, I also understand that we live in a terribly busy world and sometimes people just can’t get a more formal form of thanks out in a timely matter or at all, and I tend to just give a lot of grace about it. I assume they liked the gift/favor/invitation/ etc… and move one without any worry. Most thank you notes are just a few words anyhow, and if someone doesn’t send one then it is one less piece of paper to throw out or recycle.

      Though I do find it sad that, as a culture, we are moving away from the written word and the act of mailing a note or letter to another person. I think it is a beautiful tradition and gesture.

  • Reply Noelle December 22, 2016 at 10:07 am

    We write thank notes for every gift and I have my girls (4.5 and 3) participate in an age appropriate way. It’s something my family has always done, and also my husbands, and I’m so grateful that our parents got us into the habit. With kids, it definitely takes a bit more time, but I think it’s worth it to teach them how to be gracious and thankful. It also forces them to think about the gift, who gave it to them, what they like about it, etc… I still send texts sometimes in advance of the note (a picture of my kid playing with/wearing the gift, etc…), but I don’t think anything beats a hand written note for gifts, meals, or any sort of kind gesture. My goal for this year is to actually try to start sending more birthday cards to friends and friends’ kids… I want to be more thoughtful and deliberate in how I stay in touch and acknowledge friendships. Teaching and practicing gratitude starts early and should last a lifetime.

  • Reply Rebecca December 22, 2016 at 11:20 am

    I used to be good at writing thank you’s and haven’t in a while. I think it’s a good way to think about practicing gratitude and remembering we have so much to be thankful for.

  • Reply Flora December 22, 2016 at 11:55 am

    It’s so nice that you do this, and I really do think it’s a small gesture that means such a lot! Unfortunately I’ve NEVER made a habit of sending notes, even as a child… perhaps that’s why I’ve never really got into the flow of it! But that’s no excuse: perhaps I’ll make a point to do it more in 2017 – and your tip for keeping a spreadsheet of addresses seems like a brilliant place to start!

    🙂 Flora x

  • Reply Jill Palumbo December 22, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    I love getting snail mail so I try to be mindful of sending cards when I can. I’m in awe of some of the instagrammers who are so talented at creating the most perfect cards and even making the envelopes a work of art. So much inspiration there and I think it is so thoughtful to put some effort into the people we love/appreciate. Where does one find vintage stamps, do you know?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE December 22, 2016 at 12:05 pm

      I know it! Not really sure how these vintage stamp users get their stamps. EBay?

  • Reply Camila December 22, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    What a great resolution for my list. I will def join you in sending more thank you cards. I do send birthday cards but never Thank-you’s. Thanks for sharing Erin!!

  • Reply Genevieve December 22, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    Sending cards is so wonderful. This year I’ve moved away from my big group of friends and I’ve had so many more Christmas cards than previous years and it’s really brightened my days 🙂
    I always send cards if I stay with friends but I wouldn’t do so for a dinner party etc. Maybe if someone did me a big or unusual favor! And we have always been taught to send cards for presents if they haven’t been given in person. Maybe it’s time to send more!

  • Reply Kari.M December 22, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    Saying thank you, somehow, is absolutely non-negotiable. I have two nieces-in-law who never thank for anything. Not even a measly text. Don’t be that person. Any of you.

  • Reply Aja Lake December 22, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Don’t over think it!

    Happiest holidays, Erin! x

  • Reply CalifNative December 22, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    I too am blessed with a thank you note friend. Because of her I have become “religious ” about sending them. I also love to send a text or email months/years later showing how I’m still using/wearing/admiring a gift I’ve received.

  • Reply Alicia December 22, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    I used to write and sometimes make cards for friends and families. I have been doing less since the strong presence of IM/email. What matters is the “human connection”. I strong agree with that. Thank you readingmytealeaves, I am encouraged to express more my care in this holiday seasons.

  • Reply Karen December 23, 2016 at 12:09 am

    I love sending notes of all kinds, including thank-you notes. I still love checking the mail, just in case someone has sent something interesting and / or lovely.

    My “address book” is both online (for my husband’s contacts) and in an old recipe card box. I write addresses on an index card and file under a letter tab. On the side of the card I note kids, pets, anniversary date, etc. (to be honest here, I don’t know all of this for everyone, but these are the types of notes I keep). When someone moves, I mark out the old address and write in the new address, without changing cards. I love having a record of where my people have been!

  • Reply stacia December 23, 2016 at 6:39 am

    i don’t care what the receiving end does with my thank you notes. i have never thought of it as “something i must do, a job, a pain”. it’s called manners.
    and i thank my parents for teaching me manners as i have done with my children. i am older than you erin, close to parent older. but when i read your blog i can only think of what a wonderful job your parents, or someone very special in your life did raising you.
    you are an inspiration sweetheart. i wish you and your family a beautiful christmas and a very happy healthy new year.

    • Reply Karen B. January 7, 2017 at 12:00 pm

      I agree Stacia ! It’s called manners, something I hope we see more of in 2017!

  • Reply jiturka December 23, 2016 at 6:55 am

    The postage fee is currenty so high here, that not even grandmas send anything per post. Even they started to use e-mail. It is a bit pity, though. I love receving post! The stamp costs now 0,62 USD (average monthly income before tax is 1050 USD and that is already not considered a little, I get less.) I am at least sending postcards from my trips around Europe.

  • Reply Lynn @ The Not Dead Yet Blog December 23, 2016 at 8:40 am

    My kids’ grandmother always sends cards. Once I gave her a thank-you gift for hosting my parents while they were in town, and she sent me a thank you card for my thank you gift! Love her. The only way I remember is to stockpile cards, like you suggested. I’m out now and I need to get more!

  • Reply Mimi December 25, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    A stationary box is such a good idea! I’m forever misplacing my thank you cards, and I love to switch up the ones I send depending on who it’s too. Totally making a stationary box – and a Google spreadsheet for addresses (because that is also useful for resume references too!) 🙂

  • Reply Mary January 6, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    Thank you, Erin, your your posts -always full of helpful insights. Hope the birth goes well!

  • Reply Lauren January 6, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    Thank you for writing this tidbit on the importance of writing thank you notes! I too grew up with the teaching that if someone gives you a gift, you write them a thank you note. To this day, I always send thank you notes for gifts that I/we have received. I’m constantly disheartened when I give thoughtful gifts and don’t receive a letter of thanks. Knowing how good it feels to receive a note of thanks is motivation enough. I actually wrote a post about this on my blog a while back as well! Thank you again!

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