Saying "Thank You" When You Really, Really Mean It

Saying "thank you" may seem simple, but giving really heartfelt thanks can be complicated. Should you call or write? What should you say in a thank-you note? How can you show how much someone's help meant to you? Today we answer these questions and more.

Just do it.

This is really the biggest hurdle. Thanking somebody in the moment isn't all that difficult, though it's still important to remember to do it. But thanking someone after the fact, especially via note, is one of those things people notoriously put off. Just knuckle down and do it. You'll feel like a good person, and your recipient will feel all warm and fuzzy and be more motivated to get you awesome presents/do favors for you in the future. Also, they will think you are extremely polite! I have a friend who's really good about thank-you notes, and she once sent one to my mom for taking us out to dinner. Because of this my mom will always remember and like her.

I spoke with Connie Leas, author of The Art of Thank You: Crafting Notes of Gratitude, who offered these guidelines:

A thank-you note is called for whenever you want to express gratitude or appreciation for a gift, act of kindness, good work, patronage, job interview or any number of other personal exchanges. At a minimum, you must send thank-you notes for wedding gifts, gifts received and not acknowledged in person or by phone, and gifts of particular value (even if acknowledged in person).

Pick the right medium.

Assuming you can't thank somebody in person, there's an argument for calling them up right away. Kelly Browne, author of 101 Ways To Say Thank You: Notes Of Gratitude For All Occasions, told me, "the moment you receive a gift you are most often filled with a little sparkle that someone has thought of you. And when you call, that excitement is conveyed in your voice and the sender feels that their kind gesture was important to you."

However, notes also have a special charm. Says Cheryl Russell, author of Thankyouology: How The Art of Saying Thank You Transforms Your Life!,

While some may say it's old-fashioned, in my book, a thank you note/letter will never go out of style. The biggest advantage is that the recipient can read it again and again and again. Emails get deleted and phone calls are hard to remember as time goes on. I am confident there are many boxes and file cabinets with thank you notes tucked away — especially those from children.

Whether you should call or write depends on the situation. In general, a call or e-mail may be appropriate for smaller favors (says Russell, "someone who attended a delightful party or dinner gathering may choose to call the hostess the next day and extend their gratitude"), while a note is better for larger ones, or for gifts. Notes tend to be a bit more formal, and possibly better than phone calls for professional connections and distant relatives — but I've also gotten really lovely thank-you notes from my best friend, so it's possible to send them to people you're close to as well. When in doubt, Browne points out you can always do both.

Be specific.

Says Leas,

[I]f you are expressing gratitude for a gift, mention the gift and say what you like about it, and, if relevant, how you plan to use it. Don't just say, "thank you for the gift." Make it personal and be sincere.

Browne adds,

Be thoughtful in what you choose to write; you don't want it to sound generic. Think about the moment you received your gift and how you felt. Tell your recipient about it. This is a wonderful way to share a special moment if the person who gave you the gift isn't there.

Use adjectives to describe the gift they gave you. It shows that you appreciated all the reasons why they chose that particular gift for you. "Thanks for the crystal glasses." Or "Thank you for the sparkling crystal glasses!" Adjectives help convey your emotion! Use them.

Let your feelings show.

Browne points out that thank-yous are not the time for restraint or nonchalance: "Half-hearted thank-you's are not acceptable! Even if you're not a demonstrative soul and you have trouble expressing yourself in person, then make sure you follow up with a note." This is good advice for those who are a little uncomfortable being effusive — it's often easier to express how much you care if you do so in writing. And don't downplay your own thank-you. Says Russell,

[R]efrain from using phrases such as "I can't thank you enough" or "this is a small token of appreciation. These phrases minimize the sentiment. Keep expressions in the positive, "This is a token of our immense appreciation" or "there is so much I can say about your generous gift, I will start with a heartfelt thank you…"

What about the awkward situation when you're actually not that grateful? What do you say about, for instance, that scented flower that plugs into your USB port, or that useless strawberry huller? Russell says, "I think it shows if someone feels an obligation to say thank you" — but sometimes you do need to say thanks to someone who got you a crappy gift, if for no other reason than to preserve a decent relationship with them. My advice: find something about the gift you like. Maybe the strawberry huller is pretty. Maybe the scent flower really does a good job covering up food smells in your office. And if you really, really hate something, go the note route. It's definitely easier to hear insincerity over the phone.

Don't talk about other stuff.

Says Russell, "A thank you note carries the most sincerity when it is the only reason for writing rather than adding it on to some other type of correspondence." People are so used to being thanked as an afterthought — or as a precursor to another request — that they're shocked when you just want to say thank you. In college, I once had the job of calling up donors simply to thank them — not to ask for more money — and they were totally confused. But if you're thanking friends and loved ones, rather than total strangers, they'll be surprised and delighted that you took the time just to thank them, without any ulterior motive.

Consider unconventional thank-yous.

If you want to do something above and beyond a note or call, thank-you gifts can be sweet, but you don't need to go overboard. Says Browne,

You can do anything that you feel would be a kind and thoughtful gesture. Don't think that you need to buy someone something elaborate, things as simple as flowers from your garden, or your favorite cookies, or perfumed candles let the other person know that what they did for you made you feel special.

Something you spent time on can be especially nice. Russell has some more ideas:

  • Use photos or write the thank you in an unusual way.
  • Create a thank you note card with a photo of the flower arrangement to show the sender how beautiful it was or write a note in the sand if near a beach. Take a photo and use it to create a digital thank you note.
  • Wedding gift thank you's seem to be a challenge for some. A photo of that special vase that found a perfect spot would be delightful to receive tucked inside the traditional thank you note. Takes a little more time, and it's worth it to acknowledge the time and $$ someone expended to give the gift or service.
  • Teachers are good with thank you notes from students…sending a guest speaker drawings made by the class or a card signed by all the students.

Or, "How about writing a poetic verse to say thank you? Singing praises in a song?" Basically, if you feel like doing something special to thank someone, do what comes naturally to you. Something that expresses gratitude in a way that's unique to you and to the situation will be especially meaningful. Also, if you use a gift again and again, it's fine to thank someone more than once. Says Russell,

Sending a card or email, even a phone call months or years later to express continued joy a gift has given is greatly appreciated. Every time I dust items that were given to me, I think of the person who gave it to me. It's nice to let them know. A friend of mine gave me a beautiful violet plant last fall. After all the buds bloomed, it had no flowers for a couple of months. Then, several new buds appeared. I was elated to know the violet was happy. I took a photo, emailed it along with a "follow-up" thank you note to the friend who gave it to me. She was thrilled!

Saying thank you doesn't just make other people happy — it can be good for you, too. A thank-you note or call can help you relive the joy of getting a gift. And research suggests that giving thanks can make you more optimistic and even healthier. As Leas says,

Many people find that writing thank-you notes helps them experience a sense of gratitude in their everyday lives. Don't be intimidated. Express what you feel. The recipient will be grateful.

Connie Leas [Official Site]
The Art Of Thank You: Crafting Notes Of Gratitude
Kelly Browne [Official Site]
101 Ways To Say Thank You: Notes Of Gratitude For All Occasions
Thankyouology [Official Site]
Thankyouology: How The Art Of Saying Thank You Transforms Your Life!

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