Circumcision. Gay marriage. Immigration. There are a handful of subjects so controversial, so likely to propel people into disparate, dueling factions, that one dare not even broach them in mixed company.

They’re surefire feud igniters. They’re quarrel kindling.

Who knew thank-you notes were among them?

With the holidays approaching, I asked some friends what they think of thank-you notes — those customary expressions of gratitude scribbled, stamped, and sent by refined recipients of thoughtful gifts and generous gestures — and I was surprised to find people staunchly divided on the value of these mannerly missives.

Starshine Roshell

Some insisted that thank-you notes are gracious, timeless, and classy. Others declared them outdated and meaningless. And the fight was on.

“I am dumbfounded at the numbers of people who think they don’t need to acknowledge a gift, or who think an email suffices,” said a woman who wouldn’t let her kids use any gift until they had written a thank-you note for it.

“Better to look someone in the eyeballs and say a sincere ‘thank you’ than to go through that paper-wasting ordeal,” argued another mom.

I send thank-you notes, and I make my kids send them because … well, because it’s the way we demonstrate our understanding of how polite society works. Like giving up a seat for an elderly person. Or wearing underpants. It’s a silly but longstanding rite by which our manners are judged.

Come to think of it, dashing off an “Oh, how I cherish this pie-scented candle” memo makes me feel more deserving of the thing in the first place. And it forces me to actively appreciate a kindness carried out on my behalf. How could that be a bad thing?

“Some thank-yous seem insincere, forced, or obligatory,” says one dad, “which seems to contradict the premise behind them.”

Well, yeah. There’s that. Are thank-you notes etiquette purely for etiquette’s sake? Do they lose all meaning when they’re scrawled out of duty and on deadline, rather than inspired by genuine, spontaneous gratitude?

Maybe. But we don’t always mean it when we say we’re sorry, either; sometimes “fake it ’til you feel it” is an honorable strategy.

“I’d take an obligatory thank-you over an obnoxious sense of entitlement any day,” says a young woman who traces her own good manners back to being forced to write thank-you notes as a kid. “I feel like it helped me become a more polite and conscientious person.”

My friend Kim says she would honestly rather not receive a gift than have to drag out the stationery and pen a merci beaucoup. “While I know that they are absolutely the right thing to do, I hate writing them,” she wrote on her blog, “When I give a gift, I always tell the recipient, ‘Do not write me a thank-you note.’ Now, in my book, that’s a gift.”

I wouldn’t turn down an offer like that — mostly because I loathe addressing the little buggers. But I recently received a thank-you note from a 13-year-old boy that was so authentic and amusing, so simple and yet carefully infused with voice, that it reminded me why the tedious task is worthwhile:

Roshell Family,

I LOVE your gift. I’ve been waiting for that book to come out for a while now, and your gift-giving instincts were right on the money for this one (not like they ever aren’t).

Thanks a hell of a lot.


P.S. I get to say hell now that I’m 13.

It made me chuckle. It made me glad to have given him a gift. It absolutely made my day. Which means — aw, hell — I probably ought to send him a thank-you note.


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