Long Live the Thank You Note: How This Simple Custom Can Create a Lasting Impression


We all have one early childhood memory that stands out crisp and clear in our minds before all others.  For some, it’s that first day at school, while for others it might be a day at the beach, a cool slice of watermelon or a giant melting ice cream cone on a hot summer’s day.  Not for me, not this kid.  One of my most powerful memories, one that continues to influence my life today, is that of my Auntie Ruthie sitting in her spam-scented kitchen writing thank you notes.  Lots of them.  Almost every day.  We all pick up habits (both good and bad) from those around us, so it should come as no surprise to me that I’m constantly reaching for that pen to this day.  It turns out Auntie Ruthie was onto something, because even in this era of email, texting and instant messaging, the lowly thank you note continues to stand the test of time.  It turns out the little thank you note has a power all its own.

Gratitude—Good For Me, Good for You

I’ve always liked everything about sending thank you notes, from the feel of fine paper in my hands to that quiet pause required to put a few simple words together.  Expressing my gratitude this way just felt good.  I really didn’t give it much thought.  As it turns out, there might be more at work than we know.   In the NYT Article “The Found Art of Thank-You Notes,” Guy Trebay points out that recent scientific findings link gratitude to increased optimism, stress reduction and even a better night’s sleep. Who doesn’t want more of those in this day and age?  He goes on to point out that few who sit down to write that good old note are not only on trend but heading toward happier and more sociable the one piece of paper they save for decades.

It’s Easier Than You Think

It turns out that a lot of the beauty and power behind a thank you note lie in its very simplicity.  You don’t need to worry about putting together an outline or notes, rough drafts, editing or citations.  A 2010 NPR Weekend Edition story put the formula best:  short, sweet, and written by hand.  Ted Kennedy, former Massachusetts Senator, famous champion of liberal causes and “Lion” of the Senate, was beloved on both sides of the aisle for his habit of relentlessly finding the time to remember people with a simple two line note.   Many of the things I’ve written over the years continue to echo in my mind like the warmth of a happy memory:  thank you for being there for me, you inspire me, you didn’t need to do that but it made my year.

It Turns Out They are Good for Business, Too

For candidates returning from a job interview and trying to decide whether to send a thank you note or not, the advice of experts is decidedly more mixed on the power of the thank you note.  Personally, I’m in still in favor of them.   After working for more than fifteen years in recruiting, hiring and staff management, my anecdotal experience is that some of the best employees and managers I’ve ever seen were devotees of the practice.  I have a box tucked away in my closet at home filled with the thoughtful words of people who learned from me or, more often than not, gave me the opportunity to learn from them.  For thank you notes following interviews, a few simple rules seem to apply across the board:

  • Emails ARE okay to send. However, their impact will be greater if twinned with a hand-written note
  • A thank you note can help a candidate resonate personally  where the field is similar
  • All agree that any note should be simple and to the point—again, gratitude goes a long way

Candidates looking for some simple tips on a professional note can find it in a 2008 Forbes article on how to write a winning thank you note. 

In Good Company

A simple Google search yields countless examples of famous thank yous over the years.  It’s hard to forget Ronald Reagan’s famous  and poignant “sunset of my life” note in which he discloses his battle with Alzheimer’s disease yet sticks to one simple message—thank you for letting me serve you.  On a lighter note, I laughed out loud when I read Marilyn Monroe’s thank you to the German Consulate for sending her a bottle of champagne one evening that made her “gayer.”  Clearly, my Auntie Ruthie has been onto something—and she is certainly in good company.  As you’ve probably guessed, I feel pretty grateful to have picked up at least one great habit over the years.

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