Modern Etiquette: Are thank-you notes a relic of the past?

(Mary Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Etiquette" and "Class Acts". She is also the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization with the website The opinions expressed are her own.)

SEATTLE, Jan 11 (Reuters Life!) - Inquiring minds want to know: have you sent thank-you notes for holiday gifts this year? If so, did you actually write them by hand? If you did not send notes, ask yourself why not. Perhaps you thanked the giver in person when you received the gift.

You can do better, and maybe you should.

Gift giving runs the gamut, from a box of chocolates or a coffee shop gift card, to tickets to the Super Bowl. Perhaps the gift was an introduction to someone you’d like to meet, or passing along helpful information. There is an almost limitless host of other possibilities.

Yet the truth is that the most special gifts we have to give are our time and our attention.

Gifts of time and attention do not depend on the economy, and, in fact, doing others a kind turn in difficult circumstances greases the skids of life.

A thank-you note, especially when handwritten, is a prime example of a gift of time and attention.

Unfortunately, my informal research within the for-profit and nonprofit sectors indicates that thank-you note sending, in any form, is way down this year.

Is there a greater return on investment than when we spring for a piece of paper, a postage stamp, and a few minutes of our time? I doubt it. TIME IN VALUED

Kenneth Daly, president and CEO of National Association of Corporate Directors in Washington, DC, said: “I get maybe 10 to 15 handwritten thank-you notes annually. I am very grateful when someone takes the time in this age of email/text to do so, and I appreciate their time. Email/text does nothing for me, for I know it takes a second and almost no thought. Notes are quite different and especially stand out today.”

Anne Knapp, development officer at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle echoed the feeling.

“It is a rare day in May when anyone gets personal mail these days. People adore getting a personal note that’s really personal; not a boring, thoughtless formula. I don’t think that gratitude exists today.”

It’s never overkill to say thank you in writing.

To avoid notes that are boring both to read and write, here is my foolproof, three-step formula:

1. Be sure to thank the person for the specific gift and mention the gift by name

2. Acknowledge the effort and energy the giver put into providing the gift. (Hint: begin this sentence with “you”, as in “You knew exactly which novel would transport me from my doldrums to a sunnier place.”)

3. Let the giver know how you have used or will use the gift.

How we send a note is a matter of our personal style.

E-mail is better than being ignored, yet a well-written letter on stationery has powers no computer chip can match. The value we place on handwritten notes may, in part, be a reaction to the lack of truly personal involvement in today’s correspondence, which often takes its toll on the way we express ourselves.

A letter can be a gift that pleases both the sender and the receiver. It is more personal than a telephone call and even more intimate and touching than a private conversation.

To the recipient, a handwritten note on lovely paper is so much more meaningful than an email, a tweet, or a message on a Facebook wall. (Do people print out emails and place them in their treasure boxes or under their pillows?)

Gratitude itself is a broader question. Surely gratitude has a place within the “creative civility” the President called for when he was interviewed on “60 Minutes”. Or does it?

If you agree with Ms. Knapp that gratitude is dead, then let’s revive it so that our example teaches others.

Joe Bundrant, executive vice-president of Trident Seafoods, a private company with sales exceeding $1 billion, maintains that gratitude is not dead at all, but that “every generation argues that the next generation doesn’t get it. My parents said so, and now it would be easy for me to say so. Each generation just has different ways of expressing itself.”

I tend to agree, mostly because I am a hopeless optimist when it comes to the human spirit.

Last week a national magazine asked me what single tip I could offer to improve lives over the coming year. The answer was easy: express gratitude whenever opportunities present themselves. Before going to sleep at night, recall three things to be grateful for that day. You will sleep better because this moment of non-dual thinking will help reboot your brain for tomorrow’s challenges.

After about three weeks of this, the practice will become a habit, and you will have yet another thing for which to be grateful! Try it. I’ll be grateful if you do.

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith