December 26, 2012

The gift-giving is over. 

And now comes the part we were dreading. 

The thank-you notes. 

Thank-you notes are the kind of thing that you are never entirely rid of, like cat hair, sin in certain religions, or celery that has gotten stuck in your teeth. No matter where you are or what you are doing, if you had parents like mine, you have the nagging feeling that you need to be writing someone a thank-you letter. 


(Bigstockphoto)

This is harder to do than it looks. And it looks hard. No doubt Mallory stared at Mount Everest with much the same trepidation I feel when I confront a box of stationery. There are so many questions. For instance, how long is too long to wait before sending a thank-you note? I wrote thanking someone for inviting me to a party where I met his baby and his cat, but now the baby is starting kindergarten, and I think the cat has died. Also, I have lost his address.

The more thoughtful the gift, the harder it is to come up with a note. All the standard formulas seem trite. “Dear Name. Thank you for the lovely noun. I can’t wait to verb with it!” But efforts to spice things up inevitably backfire.

Stray too far from the prescribed path and you wind up in the dark forest of accidentally double-edged compliments. (“Thank you for the book! I’ll waste no time in starting it!”) In some cases it is difficult to avoid sounding as though you have just lit the gift on fire and stamped on it repeatedly. A certain inevitable truthfulness creeps into your tone. (“The framed photograph you sent of yourself smoking a large meerschaum pipe will look wonderful underneath my bathroom sink.”)

The one useful thank-you-writing trick I have ever found is to purchase the smallest possible thank-you cards. Otherwise you run out of things to say after two lines and find yourself still confronted with a vast ocean of card. The card looks expectantly at you. You try to say something. None of the sentences you can think of are long enough. The page remains irritatingly empty. Frenzied, you continue to scribble until you have filled at least half the card, only to discover that you have accidentally written the same phrase twice and shared a lot of details about your personal life that the recipient will not know what to do with.

The Internet should have made this easier. But instead, it adds to the challenge. If you want to Do It Right and Send a Card, this requires obtaining actual addresses. People under 30 seldom have Real Addresses. If you ask them for their Real Addresses, they get spooked and assume that you are getting married and want to invite them. People over 30 have been trained by long experience and disappointment not to expect thank-you notes. When they get them, they are so surprised and delighted that sometimes you get one back. Sometimes they keel over from sheer shock. This is the worst possible outcome.  Then you are required to send a condolence card. 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.