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No Thank You?

November 13, 2010

Next month we have two weddings in our family.  Needless to say, there has been a lot of talk about wedding stuff of late.  So it wasn’t quite out of the blue when my wife mentioned the other day that we’d never gotten a thank you note for a wedding gift we’d given earlier in the year.

I needed to be reminded of both the wedding and the gift and took her word for it that we hadn’t gotten a thank you. 

Because of our geographical remoteness we miss a lot of weddings and end up mailing the gift. “Maybe they didn’t get the gift,” I opined.  My wife decided to get to the bottom of things and made a phone call that ran something like, “Just checking to make sure you got our gift.”

The answer surprised us.

“Yes.  We got it.  And thanks, really liked it.”

Call me old fashioned, but I think a handwritten thank you note is sort of nice.  And although I guess that a verbal thank you is the ultimate personal touch, when you have to basically initiate it yourself it falls kind of flat.  Even an e-mail would have been preferable.

At least we didn’t get a broadcast Tweet: 

The bride and groom say thx 2 all u orsum ppl 4 all the gr8 gifts!

My wife and I had an interesting chat about what’s going on.  Admittedly we don’t know the bride and groom all that well (we’re friends of the parents) but based on the rather scrupulous attention they seemed to have paid to all the other traditional aspects of the wedding (e.g., fancy invitations, registry, about a million wedding and honeymoon pictures on Picassa) we would have thought that thank you notes would be part of the package.  Are they too busy?  Did they forget?  Were they mad at us for not coming to the wedding and just sending a gift?  Or is etiquette sort of passé?

We raised the subject with some friends at a party and the response was basically I can top that!

One lady told the story about how she had sent a substantial gift certificate to her grandson in Australia for his twenty first birthday.  About a month later, having heard nothing from the grandson, she called her daughter to see if he had mentioned receiving the gift.  The daughter gave what now seems to be the standard reply, “Oh yeah, he got it.  Thanks, Mom – that was very generous of you.”

Our friend inquired why the grandson could not have called to thank her and the daughter replied, “Oh come on Mom, he’s so busy.  I’m thanking you now aren’t I?”

Most of the other guests had similar stories about recipients being “too busy” to say thank you.  It sounds like this kind of behaviour is being normalized.  Not acknowledging and thanking someone for a gift or a favour is no longer considered rude. 

I think the term “too busy” is now actually code for “I don’t feel like it.”  And the real root cause is a combination of not wanting to be bothered to take the time and the fact that, let’s face it, etiquette is pretty much a thing of the past.  I did a little research and apparently the only place where thank you letters are still extant is after a job interview.  And then only if you really want the job.

As disturbing as living in a busy, uncivil society is to me, I think I am more bothered by the underlying logic/philosophy of a thank you note free world.  Because it means that (1) if you don’t want to do something you just say you’re too busy and it’s OK and (2) things like wedding/birthday/graduation gifts are so meaninglessly mundane people aren’t even thankful for them.  It’s like the attitude is, “My job is to get married/graduate/have a birthday.  Your job is to give me stuff.”

I’m not sure how we got to this point.  I would love to embark on a rant about how technology is the root cause.  After all, it’s not exactly unprecedented for people to merrily schmooze their virtual friends and attend to their Farmville holdings while ignoring their real friends (and lives). 

But I think the demise of thank you notes, and etiquette in general goes farther back than the advent of social networking. It is not that everyone is rude and impolite, it’s just that most people today are clueless about etiquette.  The world is full of super models but no well mannered role models for people to emulate.

A few years ago there were people who were known for their manner and class.  Audrey Hepburn, Jackie O, Fred Astair, and David Niven were a few of them.  But I’m fairly hard pressed to come up with a name for a currently living celebrity who embodies those traits.  Maybe the Queen, but that’s her job, and anyway, she has a staff to do all that for her.

But I think the main reason it’s hard to name a public figure known for their politeness is because if they existed we wouldn’t know about them.  The media aren’t interested. 

Reality TV shows (too numerous to name, but Jersey Shore comes to mind) glorify bad behaviour.  And I don’t know how good a chef Gordon Ramsey is—his reputation is his manners as far as I can tell and we seem to be geared up to reward him for abusing people.  We have some friends who work in the restaurant business and they say that in the past couple of years, professional kitchens are increasingly stressful as Ramsey-esque behaviour has become the norm.

 And shows like Survivor teach that you win by tearing down the competition, not by excelling yourself.  The caring, polite person is portrayed as a loser.  So is it any wonder people today are clueless about good manners.

Maybe I’m just have a gloomy outlook because of my recent discovery about King Arthur and our lack of modern heroes.  But I’m not expecting many thank you notes from now on!

18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2010 7:49 pm

    See, now my tactic would be to just tell the bride and groom I was too busy to get them a gift. 😉

  2. November 14, 2010 1:05 am

    We have received various kinds of thank you notes from graduating students but not many handwritten. More in the form of mass produced notes that thank you for the gift and inform you of their college plans. We do have a social studies teacher at school that impresses upon the students the importance of sending thank you notes for the scholarships they receive and to anyone who has written a letter of recommendation for them. But she is the exception.

  3. November 14, 2010 1:40 am

    There’s no excuse for failing to say thanks. It would be nice to get a hand-written note, but since handwriting is going the way of vinyl records, I’d settle for a phone call or even an e-mail, but one that specifically acknowledge that I sent a specific gift, not something like, “Thank you for the lovely gift. I’ll think of you every time I use it!” That’s just lame.

  4. November 14, 2010 2:10 am

    This is a thought-provoking post, Tom…I remember going to wedding showers when I was younger where one of the guests was always assigned to list the gifts along with the giver’s name so that Thank You notes could be sent afterward. I think that custom may have gone the way of the dodo bird…it certainly is not evident at showers I’ve attended for people of my oldest daughter’s generation.

    This summer, Jim and I attended a double graduation party for two of Jim’s cousins’ children (two different families). We gave both graduates cash in a card – we received a hand-written Thank You card in the mail from the boy who’d graduated from university, and no acknowledgement from the girl who’d graduated from high school. I think that Thank You notes from children are usually written at the urge of diligent parents.


  5. November 14, 2010 5:14 am

    I’ve got a slightly different take on this topic.

    First, the agreement: It is impolite NOT to respond with a proportionate Thank-You note to a gift. One should.

    Now the oblique meditation:

    You infer:

    “… It’s like the attitude is, “My job is to get married/graduate/have a birthday. Your job is to give me stuff…”

    That’s subtly off for today’s generation of a certain social class. It’s off in the first sentence by a little bit, and in the second sentence by a lot.

    “My job is to get married….”:

    You do have a hollowing out of these old rites of passage and their associated rituals. Your description of that cookie-cutter wedding says it all. She probably turned into bridezilla (and he into a stressed, marginalized and tuned-out groom) to conform, in effect, to some catalogue. She probably had her dad walk her down the aisle but kept her own last name, thus dismembering ( or halving) that particular ritual (this being the creation of a new family unit). Similarly, she probably dismembered the various other symbolic rites that once had roots in actual traditions. And with no sense of irony, because, well, who understands the dang tradition in the first place?

    So, yes, “my job is to do X.” Hard to get excited about it anymore. I don’t understand what it means.

    Part II:

    “Your job is to give me stuff…”

    Actually, the implicit AND EXPLICIT message of a lot of people (certainly my wife and me), though by no means all people, is the opposite:

    “For heaven’s sake, STOP giving me stuff. Stop the flow of crap, of things we don’t need or want in impossible plastic boxes, of things we need to hold another yard sale for, of things that waste or spewed carbon in their production, of things that are obviously inappropriate or irrelevant to us. Why don’t you, you know, give us some of you TIME instead? Chat. Visit. If you must give, why not ask what would make sense?” Etc.

    We try to have multilateral disarmaments. Eg, kids’ birthdays. “We’ll stop escalating if you stop escalating, what with the Baby Einstein this and that. OK?” But people don’t de-escalate. They don’t dare. It’s the ETIQUETTE. They’re afraid to break it.

    So now: somebody we barely know has sent us crap we expressly told them not to send. What do we do? Write a Thank You note? What should the note say?

    • November 14, 2010 6:40 am

      To write that you don’t want this or that in such explicit terms is the height of rude if you ask me, which you didn’t but I would be gravely insulted if someone sent such a note . Just saying.

    • November 14, 2010 9:53 am

      Actually, Andreas, I agree totally with your disagreement! When I wrote “my job is to get married . . .” I wasn’t referring to raison d’etre, rather a role that one was assuming–in other words, I am having a life milestone (marriage, graduation, birthday) and that puts me in gift receiving mode.

      As far as wedding protocols are concerned–totally true. My favourite was the double wedding–the bride and groom and their two dogs simultaneously.

      You are right about the arms race with respect to kids’ birthdays, etc., but I’m not sure that etiquette is what is driving it. No one wants to scale back because they think they will lose face. I’ve heard stories of kids complaining about the quality of the goody bags they receive at each other’s parties.

      I’m not sure if it’s available in the US yet but have a look at The Happy Economist by Ross Gittins. He’s an economics writer in Australia and the book is an exploration of how the current economic model of growth and material acquisition is flawed and that increased material possession does not lead to happiness–based on what you say I think you’d like the book.

  6. November 14, 2010 6:44 am

    Great post, Thomas! Sadly I have been remiss in sending xmas and thank you cards. 9 years ago we didn’t send any after my grandmother died and it;s haunted me ever since.

    • November 14, 2010 9:56 am

      Thanks Lisa! That reminds me of another interesting topic–The annual Christmas letter!

  7. November 14, 2010 10:34 am

    I may be the worst person to comment on things like this, but I was raised to always send a thank you note. However, my belief is that if I said “thank you” in person (and I initiated it, of course) that was fine. I have since been badgered to send a card anyway, which I feel is redundant.

    Last year the father of a friend of mine died, and we planted a tree in his honor. Sometime later we recieved a pre-printed thank you note. I was OK with that, especially in a time of grief. However, the note was not addressed to any particular person, as if there was a stack of them handy and were just dropped in envelopes as needed. Even that, in a time of grief over the loss of a father, I shrugged off. What I didn’t like was the fact that signature on the card was not my friend’s signature. She had someone else sign them for her. That was going too far.

  8. November 16, 2010 1:57 am

    It does help to have an etiquette guide. Fortunately one of our good friends is essentially a walking etiquette book. That’s the only reason we know that we have 3 months to send the thank you notes we’re working on for guests at our wedding. Although we’re already getting questions about when the thank you notes are getting sent out, which kind of defeats the purpose of a thank you when someone asks you for it.

  9. November 16, 2010 9:21 am

    That just says a lot about folks. That is something you make time for. You said they seemed to touch all the bases on wedding traditions. You can’t dot all the i’s for yourself and fail to do the same for people who cared enough to wish you well with a gift. Kudos to Mrs. S. for calling them on it.

  10. November 16, 2010 5:57 pm

    The state of New York has been paying my bills for over a year. High time I sent a little thank-you note. I wonder if they have government thank-you cards at the Hallmark store.

    And thank you, Thomas, for reminding me to thank Albany. And thanks to WordPress for providing the electronic infrastructure to thank you.

    Etiquette is like the English language. Ever since its invention, its erosion has been lamented.

    One reason I dislike Christmas and my birthday is that when I was little, my mom—in a well-intentioned effort to teach me good manners—always commanded me to call and thank all relatives who gave me presents. I hated the compulsion factor in this, and it left me with a permanent distaste for receiving presents.

    Except presents from the government, of course, as they are impersonal, and no response is expected.

  11. November 17, 2010 2:20 am

    It’s been my experience that if the couple subscribe to the traditional wedding customs then you should certainly expect a thank you card. I know that I’ve always received them personally.

    As for the rest, I find the vast majority of people to be so completely self absorbed that they wouldn’t know proper manners if proper manners sat on their lap. The trick is to find the people in the room who are awake and present and zone out the rest.

  12. November 21, 2010 9:08 am

    You are absolutely right. The lack of civility in the country is rampant. Manners are seen as either some kind of indication that the one using them thinks they are better than others or as a weakness.

    Really enjoyed this post. I’ll be back.


    • November 21, 2010 9:46 am

      Thanks Pearl, glad you enjoyed the post. I agree with you about the way manners are viewed–just watch any reality TV show!


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