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The Importance of Thank-You Notes

(May 28, 2004)
(updated on Aug 23, 2020)


People often ask me for advice on how to be successful. "Is there a secret?" they say.

As we all know, real success comes slowly and is due to a number of different factors all coming together over a period of years. Being successful takes intelligence, natural talent, knowledge, skill, hard work, smart choices, persistence and luck.

Although there is no real shortcut, there is a secret: a secret so powerful that you can use it to open doors that might otherwise be closed, and to influence people to help you time and again. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is the secret that has a lot to do with my success.

The secret is simple: Write thank-you notes.

Making a Friend at IBM

Years ago, when I was just starting as a professional writer, I also worked as a computer consultant. One day, I happened to read in a computer magazine that IBM was having a big conference for consultants a few hours from where I lived. I decided it would be a good idea to attend the conference, so I drove there to see if I could get in.

Once I arrived, my request to attend the conference led me to Bill, the IBM person who was organizing the conference. Bill was a nice enough fellow, but he didn't want to let me in. He said the conference was only for professional consultants and was by invitation only.

Well, I can be persistent when I need to, and finally Bill agreed to let me attend some of the conference sessions. "You can go to the afternoon workshops," he said grudgingly, "but you can't go to the dinner or to anything else." However, I wasn't going to complain. I did show up, uninvited, to an invitation-only conference for important consultants, and I felt lucky that anyone would even talk to me.

During the conference, I found out Bill's mailing address at IBM, and the minute I got home I sent him a thank-you note. I told him that I found the conference valuable and that I appreciated his consideration.

Over the years, I got to know Bill a lot better, and I found out he was a wonderful, thoughtful man. However, at the time, I didn't know him at all. All I knew was that he responded to my note by allowing me to register with the IBM Consultant Relations department as an officially recognized consultant.

During the next few years, I was not only invited to IBM's conferences, I was able to spend time with Bill and the various people he worked with. He had a lot of experience, and I spent many hours listening to his stories and learning from him. Bill went out of his way to set up meetings for me with important IBM executives and to introduce me to influential consultants. He helped me in so many important ways, I can't even begin to list them all. And when the time came that the IBM Consultant Relations department needed to build their own computer network, they hired me as a consultant to come to their headquarters and do the work for them.

Why Thank-You Notes Are So Effective

I would like to believe that I was hot stuff. After all, it's pleasant to think that Bill was able to talk to me for only a few moments and see what a truly valuable human being I was. The plain truth, however, was that the consultant's conference was filled with people who were more knowledgeable, more experienced, better known, and far more important than me. But I had one advantage.

Out of several hundred guests, I was one of the few who bothered to take the time to thank IBM for having me. IBM (and Bill) went to a lot of trouble and spent a lot of money for these people, and I was the only one who took a few minutes to send a thank-you note.

Why are such notes so effective? Although it is easy to sit down and write a short note, hardly anyone does, and the moment you do, you set yourself aside from the crowd. Moreover, people like Bill work hard. How do you think they feel when someone takes the time to thank them for a job well done, or for spending a little extra time doing something special for someone?

How would you feel? You would feel great, and you would never forget the person who took the trouble to write the note that made you feel so good.

Della and Josh

"My mom always made me write thank-you notes," said Della, and no one who knows her would be surprised that her good manners would pay off handsomely over the years. However, even Della did not anticipate how a simple note would change her life.

It was 1990. Josh was a good-looking, intelligent, single guy living in Southern California. He had recently wound up a successful business, and had decided to move to Hawaii and start afresh. Earlier that year, Josh had ended a long-term relationship and, since then, he had been dating a succession of women. He was ready to settle down. In fact, he was looking for someone to go to Hawaii with him, but after several months of searching he still couldn't find the right woman.

Instead, Josh prepared to go alone. He sold some things, packed the rest, made his travel arrangements, and, as a final gesture to his old life, planned a going-away party at which he could say goodbye to all his old friends.

A few weeks before his departure, Josh hosted the party at his own place, and seventy-five people showed up. One of them was Della, who had been brought by a friend. Della had been introduced to Josh briefly several years before, but he didn't remember much about her and, at the party, he was so busy with all his guests he barely had time to talk to her.

The next morning, however, Della wrote Josh a thank-you note. She didn't know his last name, so she addressed the note to "Josh" at the street address where the party had been held.

Josh, of course, didn't expect anyone to write a note, especially someone he barely knew. Indeed, of all the guests who had been at his house, Della was the only one who bothered to thank her host properly.

To Della, sending a thank-you note was simply an expression of her good manners. To Josh, the note meant a lot more. "Her thank-you note was like Cinderella's glass slipper," he recalls. "I was waiting for a sign. That thank-you note was the sign."

Josh called Della, asked her out on a date, and ten days later they were on their way to Hawaii. Before long they were married and now, years later, they have three wonderful daughters — Clara, Celeste and Emily — and are one of the happiest couples I know.

Your Mother Was Right

Did your mother ever nag you to write thank-you notes? Well, she was right.

Of course, you can't expect to make a friend like Bill every time you write a note, and certainly, Della's luck was exceptional. However, the reason you write a thank-you note is to thank someone, and, believe me, there is no one who will not appreciate the gesture.

In principle, the warm feeling you get from writing a thank-you note should be enough to satisfy you. That, of course, is what your mother tried to teach you. What you may not realize, however, is that the habit of thanking people goes a long way toward making you successful.

The reason for this is simple. All of us need the help of others, and anything we can do to show our appreciation is going to make other people want to help us.

When Should You Write a Thank-You Note?

Good manners require you to write a thank-you note whenever someone:

  • Gives you a gift
  • Entertains you at their home
  • Does you a kindness
  • Offers you an important opportunity

The first two situations are straightforward. Whenever you receive a gift and whenever you have been entertained at someone's home, you must write a thank-you note. The circumstances do not matter. Who the people are does not matter. You must send them a note: this is not negotiable.

If you do not feel like it ("I didn't want to go in the first place, and the food was terrible, and my hostess didn't even seem to notice when her baby threw up all over my new blouse"), console yourself with the thought that you are being polite. Writing thank-you notes is what well-mannered people do, and it is good manners that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

When someone does you a kindness, you may or may not be obliged to send him a thank-you note. In general, you do not have to write a note to thank someone for doing his job properly. For example, say you are looking for a book at the library, and the librarian is polite and efficient. She is merely doing her job, and you do not need to send her a note (although you should be gracious and thank her at the time).

Suppose, however, you have a special request, one that requires the librarian to put in an unusual amount of effort helping you. Once you receive that help, it would be the mark of a real gentleman or lady to send a written thank-you note. When you do, I guarantee that (1) your note will make the librarian very happy, and (2) you will stand out because very few people bother to write such notes.

So, when someone helps you, how do you know when you should write a thank-you note? The answer is simple:

Harley's Rule of
Thank-You Notes

Whenever someone spends more effort helping you than it would take to write a thank-you note, send a note.

If someone offers you an important opportunity, be sure to take a moment and thank him for his help. For example, from time to time I am interviewed on radio or TV. I consider each interview a chance to talk to a large group of people, so after the interview, I send a thank-you note to the host of the show as well as the person who books the guests.

The next time someone provides you with an opportunity, send that person a note. It's easy to do, and you can be sure your thought will be appreciated and remembered.

Receiving a Thank-You Note

I write books for a living, and over the years I have autographed more books than I can remember. Every now and then, a salesperson who works for the publisher will ask me to send a book to someone to whom they are trying to make an important sale.

One such request stands out in my mind. A salesperson asked me to autograph a book for someone who works at a large software company. "Her name is Dolores," the salesperson told me, "and she is thinking of using your book as part of a promotion they are planning."

I sent the book and, to my surprise, a few days later I received a handwritten note from Dolores. It read, "Harley: Thank you for the signed book. It was very thoughtful."

How did that note make me feel? In all the years I have been writing books, Dolores is the only one who ever sent a note thanking me for a book (and I have given away a lot of books). True, many people have been grateful, but she is the only person who took the time to write and mail a note.

Now, Dolores didn't send me a note because she thought it would make her more successful. I bet if you asked her, she would simply say she was being polite, and she would wonder what all the fuss is about. But think about how you would feel if you received such a note. Wouldn't you be more likely to want to do business with Dolores and her company? I know I am.

Why You May Not Enjoy Writing Thank-You Notes

Is it difficult for you to sit down and write thank-you notes?

Perhaps your life seems so busy that it feels impossible to write thank-you notes immediately after your wedding (or birthday party or graduation), or as soon as you return home from an out-of-town visit or a dinner.

Maybe you believe that email or texting or talking in person is as good as writing an actual paper note that you put in an envelope and mail.

Perhaps the idea of writing and mailing hand-written paper notes feels like a disagreeable, burdensome, unnecessary task.

Not to worry, all that is about to end.

The simple techniques you are about to learn will transform the writing of thank-you notes into a simple, quick, enjoyable activity. I promise: all you need to do as practice and, soon, you will want to write thank-you notes.

Are you ready?

The Fast, Easy Way to Write a Thank-You Note

A well-written thank-you contains the following three sentences (in this order):

1. A specific, favorable reaction to the gift or invitation or kindness.

2. An expression of your gratitude ("thank-you").

3. A personal comment showing that you value the relationship, not just the gift/invitation/kindness.

Thank-you notes are short, and they do not take much time to write. Start with a blank piece of paper or a blank card — do not use a preprinted card — and write the following:

• The date
• The person's name
• Sentence #1: A specific favorable reaction
• Sentence #2: An expression of gratitude
• Sentence #3: Show that you value the relationship
• Your signature (which must be legible)

That's all you need. Here is an example of a thank-you note for a gift:

August 19, 2020

Dear Sebastian:

How thoughtful of you to send me something I can really use in my personal library. Thank you for the lovely bookends: they look great in my bookcase. You are such a wonderful brother.

Alice

I assure you, not only does this pattern work well for many different situations but, once you get used to it, writing a thank-you note is fast and easy and enjoyable. To see what I mean, let's take a moment and analyze the three sentences in the example above.

Sentence #1: A specific favorable reaction

How thoughtful of you to send me something I can really use in my personal library.

Many people make the mistake of starting a thank-you note by writing the words: "Thank you for the something-or-other" (what we are calling Sentence #2).

If you do this, it will give the impression that you are forcing yourself — or worse, someone else is forcing you — to discharge a unpleasant obligation. That last thing you want is for the person who reads the note to feel as if you were churning out a bunch of thank-you notes, one at a time, like a robot. Instead, you want to write a happy, personal note that will be a delight to read.

How do you do this? You do what Alice did. By starting the note with a personal, pleasant, emotional reaction, Alice shows Sebastian that she is happy with his gift, and that she is pleased to write him a thank-you note.

Starting your thank-you notes in this way has an agreeable side effect. In order to write the first sentence, you will need to recall your feelings about the actual gift or kindness, and each time you do this you will feel grateful.

It is this feeling of gratitude — when practiced regularly — that will transform the writing thank-you changes from a tedious, onerous task into a genuinely pleasant pastime.

Sentence #2: An expression of gratitude

Thank you for the lovely bookends: they look great in my bookcase.

This sentence is easy: you simply thank the person, specifically, for what they gave you or did for you.

Notice that Alice did not say, "I would like to thank you for the lovely bookends..." When you write a thank-you note, do not use the words "I would like to". Instead of telling someone that you want to thank them, just thank them.

As a general rule, when someone has given you something, you must name the specific gift unless it is money: money is treated differently. When you thank someone for giving you money:

1. You always refer to it as "your generous gift".

2. You do not mention the amount.

Here is an example:

Thank you for your generous gift, which I will be using this fall to help pay my tuition.

Finally, whenever a busy person has provided you with an important service, please be sure that you thank them for their time.

Thank you for taking so much time to help me fill out my application form.

Sentence #3: Show that you value the relationship

You are such a wonderful brother.

The purpose of Sentence #3 is to show that your relationship with the person is more important to you than the actual gift or kindness.

Yes, what they did for you is nice, but it important to show that what you really appreciate is your relationship with the person. Indeed, this sentence is more powerful than you might think. Here is a real-life example.

I have a friend who wrote a thank-you note to his girlfriend of seven years. She had made sure to remind him about an upcoming appointment that was especially important. He wrote her as follows:

I feel loved when you remind me of something important like that. Thank you for helping me keep track of appointments: you are so organized. I'm glad that we know each other.

After receiving the thank-you note, she sent him email. Commenting on the last sentence of his note, she wrote back:

...This might possibly be one of the most romantic things you have ever said to me.

Writing a Thank-you Note

A thank-you note is written on a blank piece of paper or a blank card and contains:

• The date
• The person's name

• Sentence #1: Specific favorable reaction
• Sentence #2: Expression of gratitude
• Sentence #3: Value of the relationship

• Your signature (which must be legible)

Of course, nothing restricts you to three sentences. You can write a longer note if you wish. However, the three sentences mentioned above are the mandatory minimum.

Thank-You Note Examples for Common Situations

You will remember that, earlier, I explained that good manners require you to write a thank-you note whenever someone:

  • Gives you a gift
  • Entertains you at their home
  • Does you a kindness
  • Offers you an important opportunity

Here are several examples that illustrate how easy it is to adapt the three-sentence pattern to each of these situations. As you read each thank-you note, imagine that you are the person receiving it and ask yourself how reading this note would make you feel.

To start, let's consider the most common situation: receiving a gift. In such a case, you must write your thank-you note as soon as possible, so the person knows the gift was received and appreciated.

What if they gave you something you didn't really need or can't use? It doesn't matter. You must still send a charming note expressing your delight, your thanks, and the importance of the relationship.

Example: When someone gives you a gift

December 21, 2012

Dear Mom:

I was so excited to receive the box of homemade fudge from you — one of my favorite treats — which I was able to share with my roommate. Thank you so much for taking the time to bake it and send it to me. I am so lucky to have such a thoughtful and generous mother.

Olivia

A gift of money always deserves a timely thank-you note. Please remember that you do not mention money or the amount. Instead, you refer to "your generous gift".

With respect to a wedding: No one is required to send you a gift; wedding gifts are optional. However, for such gifts that you do receive, you must send a thank-you note immediately.

Example: When someone gives you a gift of money

February 19, 2001

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Garcia:

Elizabeth and I were absolutely delighted when we opened your letter yesterday after the wedding. Thank you so much for your generous gift, which we plan to save towards a down payment on a house of our own one day. I feel fortunate to have known you my entire life, and I know that Elizabeth is looking forward to becoming better acquainted with the two of you soon.

Fernando Rodríguez

Unless you are going to a potluck, it is impolite to bring food or drink to a dinner party. Doing so will only cause the host/hostess problems. However, as a dinner guest you do have several responsibilities. You must:

• Reply promptly to the invitation.
• Arrive on time.
• Be cheerful and sociable.
• Send a thank-you note immediately afterwards.
• Reciprocate by inviting the hosts to your place.

Here is a sample thank-you note to get you started.

Example: When someone entertains you at their home

October 27, 2018

Dear Jack and Martha:

I had such a good time having dinner at your house last night. Thank you for inviting me to such a stimulating party and for taking so much time to cook all the delicious food. I appreciate the many years of our friendship, and I look forward to having you over to my place as soon as you get back from your camping trip.

Marilyn

One thing about the business world is that no one ever has enough time to carry out all of their duties. Thus, you will always be appreciated when you thank someone for his or her time. In many cases, that is the most valuable gift the person has to give you.

Example: When someone does you a kindness.

December 21, 2013

Dear Ms. Murphy:

I was so lucky to have you answer the phone this morning when I called Factory Shoe Fulfillment. Thank you for the excellent customer service and for your willingness to work with me to solve such a complicated problem. I realize you are busy, and I appreciate your spending so much time helping me untangle our company's account with you.

Barry Simmons

Questions and Answers

Writing thank-you notes should be quick and easy, not a burden. However, I don't want you to take shortcuts that might undermine the impact of what you are doing.

To help you, here are the answers to some common thank-you note questions:

QUESTION: Does it count if I send a thank-you note by email?

No. You can always send an email message in which you thank someone for something. However, this does not count as a real thank- you note. A real thank-you note is written on paper and is delivered in an envelope.

QUESTION: Does this mean I have to write every thank-you note on paper?

Yes.

QUESTION: But I am too busy.

The person who sent you the gift or helped you solve your problem was also busy. The reason thank-you notes are so meaningful is because they do require time and effort, and the fact that you are busy makes your note all the more important. I suggest you buy some attractive notepaper or some blank cards to keep near your work area. Once you have the tools at hand, writing and addressing a thank-you note will only take a moment.

QUESTION: Can I save time and make the whole process easier by buying a preprinted card with the words already on it and just sign my name?

No. You have to write your own note on blank paper. You can use a card that is blank on the inside. However, you must write the words yourself.

QUESTION: Someone gave my husband and me a gift. Can I sign both our names to the thank-you note?

No, a letter can only be written by one person, and may only be signed by one person. However, you may write a note on behalf of yourself and someone else, as long as you are one of the people doing the thanking. ("Dear Aunt Edna: Barry and I thank you for the lovely salad bowl..."). In general, you may not write a thank-you note for someone else, nor may someone else write a thank-you note for you.

QUESTION: Are there any times when it is permissible for me to write a thank-you note for someone else?

Yes, if someone is bereaved (a death in the family) or a friend is sick or otherwise incapacitated, you may write a thank-you note for him or her. Indeed, volunteering to write thank-you notes for such people is a wonderful way to help others and make yourself feel good.

Remember, though, this only applies to people who can't write their own thank you notes which, most of the time, is not you. In normal circumstances, you must write your own notes.

QUESTION: I forgot to thank someone for something important. When is it too late to write a note?

It is never too late to write a thank-you note. You may have to grovel, but you must still write the note. ("Dear Sylvia: Yesterday, I happened to notice the brass candlestick holders you gave Harold and me several years ago for our anniversary. Although I am ashamed to admit it, I realized I never thanked you properly for your gift...")

QUESTION: Someone gave me a gift a long time ago, and I never sent a thank-you note. How much time has to pass before I am not obligated to send a note?

There is no statute of limitations on thank-you notes. Until you write the note, you have not fulfilled your social obligation.

QUESTION: I helped someone who later sent me a small thank-you gift. Do I have to send that person a thank-you note for the gift?

No. You do not have to thank people for thanking you. However, as with all gifts, you must acknowledge it in some way, so the person knows you received the gift. You may tell him or her in person, over the phone, or by email.

QUESTION: I was recently interviewed for a new job. Do I have to send a thank-you note to the person who interviewed me?

Yes. Look on it as an opportunity to demonstrate your good manners.

The Best Reason to Write Thank-you Notes

So far I have given you several good reasons to write thank-you notes. First, you will be showing gratitude to people who deserve your thanks. Second, people will respond to your good manners. Through the years, this will result in many new opportunities, which will help you become successful.

In addition, when someone sends you a gift, writing a thank-you note tells the person that you received the gift. If you have ever sent something that was never acknowledged, you will know how important it is for someone to know that his or her gift arrived safely.

These are all good reasons to write thank-you notes, but there is one more that is even more important.

Imagine that you have to choose a person with whom you are going to spend a lot of time. You have narrowed the choices down to two people who, more or less, seem the same. But then you find out that one person always writes thank-you notes, and the other person doesn't.

If you are like me, you would choose the thank-you note person. After all, doesn't it seem likely that such a person would be more gracious, friendly, and better-mannered, and isn't that just the type of person we all like to be around?

When you get in the habit of thanking people for their gifts and for their help, you yourself become a gracious, friendly, well-mannered person. Yes, it does take time to write thank-you notes, and it is not always convenient. But, over the years, putting in the effort will change you for the better — and you do spend a lot of time with yourself.

Perhaps, then, that is the real secret of success.