The Manual of Southern Know-How

When to Write a Thank-You Note

The author and Alabama native shares the Dos and Don’ts

Photo: Ross MacDonald

“Did you write your thank-you notes?” is a Southerner’s good morning.

Mama said it to me after birthdays, Christmases, and countless other occasions when someone gave me a gift or their time. Now I say it to myself. It’s like a mantra. Instead of Om, I wake up and think: Did you write your thank-you notes? If the answer is no, the writing of the note is my meditation.

I don’t write thank-yous every day, but I send them for dinner parties or a night out with a friend. When it comes to marriage, they should amend the bride’s vows. Do you promise to love, honor, and write the thank-you notes? You do. Do you have to write one to your husband for picking a squirrel corpse out of the roof gutter? You don’t.

But it would be nice.

There’s nothing more delightful than an unexpected appreciation. Hallmark doesn’t make a card for everything, so sometimes we make a judgment call. No, I don’t mean texting. My motto is: If you’re grateful, get a pen.

When I became an aunt, I wrote a thank-you note to my godmother for setting an example of how to be a good influence. I wrote a note to a high-school friend for saying something kind to me at our twentieth reunion. When I had a tooth crowned, I wrote a note to my dentist (for alleviating my fear of dentists), the hygienist (for holding my hand when the dentist stuck my gums with a needle as long as a samurai sword), and the receptionist (for politely calling me back to rebook my appointment every time I’d canceled). I wrote a note to a vet for putting our cat down.

Just because I write a lot of notes, doesn’t mean I always write a note. If I can’t find something sincere to say about the thought behind an awful gift—and I have thanked people for bad art and flavorless cheese straws—I don’t bother. Mama didn’t raise me to fake it.

For example, I did not write a thank-you note to a boyfriend who gave me Hanes panty hose in his sister’s size.

Mama said, “Helen Michelle, that screams hussy. Break up.”

And I did not write a thank-you note for a box of thank-you cards.

Mama said, “Helen Michelle, giving someone a box of thank-you cards is another way to say you never say thank you. It’s passive-aggressive. It’s like a punch in the face.”

Not everyone needs to write thank-yous, though. I’m officially letting these folks off the hook: new moms, the bereaved, and women jilted at the altar. If your breasts are leaking at the Piggly Wiggly, or your daddy’s under the dirt, or your bedazzled white dress can’t be returned, you don’t need to write me a note for a onesie, or a casserole, or a chip and dip bowl. And while I’m at it, I’m pardoning teenage boys. Because my idea of hell is being sentenced to read nothing but one-sentence fill-in-the-blank notes written by teenage boys.

But the rest of us should send our thank-you notes. And no, it’s never too late.

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