Thank-you Note: Opportunity versus Obligation

With the holiday season come gifts. And with gifts comes the question of how to thank a person who has remembered you with a gift—client, supplier, colleague, or even a boss. While this advice focuses on business gifts, it applies to gifts received in your personal life as well.

Typically, when someone gives you a gift, you open the gift then and there in the giver’s presence. According to longstanding etiquette practices, once the gift is opened, you immediately thank the giver. That “thank you,” expressed at the time the gift is opened clears you of any further obligation to thank the giver. Of course, if the gift is sent to you or not opened in front of the giver, then there is an obligation to be sure to thank the person for the gift.

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However, when opening a gift in front of the giver there is a decided difference between obligation and opportunity. While the obligation has been fulfilled, you have a perfect opportunity to reach out and touch that person again by sending him or her a thank-you note. A handwritten note received in the mail is a great way not only to thank the giver and show appreciation for the gift, but also to impress on the person what a thoughtful, great person you are. Thank-you notes are one of the few pieces of mail guaranteed to please the recipient. Once opened it is placed on the desk, often for several days, a reminder of how nice a person you are.

The effort you need to expend on that note is insignificant compared to the benefit you receive in terms of your image in the giver’s mind. And it’s very easy to do—just a few short sentences. “John (or Marge or Tom or Gwen), What a nice surprise. The gift of chocolates is just the perfect thing for me! I really am a chocoholic. Thank you so much for the thoughtful gift. I really appreciate it. Best,” Sign it, place it in an envelope, address it, put a stamp on it and send it. That’s it. Looked at as an opportunity, it might inspire you to write the note right away instead of seeing it as a chore that hangs over you for days.

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Would it be okay to send an email instead? Certainly, it is better than not writing at all. But the mailed note makes you stand out. Yours is one of possibly hundreds of other emails received each day. Better yet, because the note isn’t trashed right away, it repeatedly reminds the person about you, whereas the email is read and then deleted. Ask yourself, would you rather be remembered or deleted? Seize the opportunity and send the note.

If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to etiquetteatwork@emilypost.com. You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.

Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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