Modern Etiquette: Getting those thank-you notes right

Burlington, Vermont Mon Jan 7, 2013 4:30pm IST

A woman puts leaflet in letter boxes in Naples April 3, 2012. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca/Files

A woman puts leaflet in letter boxes in Naples April 3, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ciro De Luca/Files

Burlington, Vermont (Reuters) - Is your New Year's resolution to be more appreciative? To stay on top of things?

If you haven't already sent thank-you notes for any holiday gifts you received, the peace and quiet of New Year's Day is the perfect time to begin the year on the right foot.

When is it appropriate to send a thank-you note? The short answer is any time someone gives you a gift. A thank-you note is always appreciated, even if you've said thanks in person. It's a personal way to tell the person you truly value the effort they made.

The biggest obstacle to thank-you note writing is often writer's block. You just don't know what to say, so you put it off. You don't want to send a generic letter, but you don't know how to make the message special. It's true no one wants to receive a form letter, but don't worry about penning a Pulitzer Prize-worthy note in order to have it be appreciated by the recipient. A few tips:

The sooner you write, the easier it will be. The gift will be fresh in your mind, so you can focus on that instead of on how to express, "I'm so sorry this note is late!"

Write the note as though you were speaking directly with the person you are thanking. This often helps conquer the stiff tone that can creep into the most well-meant notes of thanks.

Good news: Thank-you notes don't need to be long! Three to five sentences gets the job done. You can always write more if you want to.

Be enthusiastic and sincere. If you're not sure what to say, mention how you plan to use the gift, "The gravy boat you sent will be perfect at the holidays."

Focus on the positive. Don't mention any dissatisfaction with the gift. Even if the item you are thanking for isn't your favorite, you can usually find something about it to praise. If you plan to exchange it, mention that in a conversation rather than in a note.

What do you write when a gift is a real dud? Good etiquette calls for honesty, but only when it serves a purpose.

This kind of note requires more diplomacy, but it's worth the effort. After all, the gift-giver meant well, so make sure you don't hurt his or her feelings.

On the other hand, avoid gushing, which in addition to being dishonest may send many more of the same kind of unwanted gift your way. Keep your tone neutral and stress your appreciation: "This is very thoughtful, thank you!"

If you want to let the gift-giver know the gift arrived safely or want to say your thanks immediately, you can always call or email your thanks right away and mention that a handwritten note will follow in the mail.

While an emailed thank-you note is still better than no note at all, the effort the giver went to buy, wrap, and deliver your gift, in addition to the thoughtfulness of getting you one at all, is worth any extra time it takes to handwrite your thanks.

There is a more personal quality to a handwritten note. It's the style card you chose or it might have your name or monogram on it and it has the personal quirks of your handwriting (even if your writing isn't the best!)

In an age when people come home to a mailbox full of bills and junk mail, your handwritten note of thanks will stand out.

Plus, taking care of your thank-you notes today means one New Year's resolution you can cross off your list on day one!

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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