Why thank-you notes are bad and dangerous

Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell pauses while making a statement as his wife, Maureen, right, listens during a news conference in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. (Steve Helber/ Associated Press)
Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell pauses as his wife, Maureen listens during a news conference in Richmond on Tuesday. (Steve Helber/ Associated Press)

“Good manners,” P. J. O’Rourke once wrote, “are a combination of intelligence, education, taste and style mixed together so you don’t need any of those things.”

One possible way of reading the McDonnell indictment is as a cautionary tale about why writing thank-you notes is such a dangerous habit.

Sure, it’s polite. But it’s also insidious.

You start out just doing it socially, to be polite. You can, you tell yourself, stop any time you like — right after you dash off this heartfelt note to Aunt Emily to thank her for the potholders. And most of the time it’s a charming habit. People love hearing how you cherished their gifts. You appear more thoughtful and kinder than you in fact are.

But then it grows on you. You receive goods, merchandise or golf fees, and when otherwise you might be able to pass them off as a friend’s carelessness (“He just kept loading the car with them! We couldn’t do anything about it!”) or, er, try to, at any rate — you feel compelled to dash off a quick, thoughtful note to say how much you cherish them.

“Write a note! Say thank you! Whatever it is you’re doing, do it politely!” Look at Bob McDonnell’s gracious “Thanks so much for all your help with my family.” Contemplate Maureen McDonnell’s lovely note to the head of Star Scientific, full of “cherishing” and “occasions” (of the momentous and grand varieties) and all those little flourishes that make a note so special. This is exactly what they tell you to do, but, at the same time, it is exactly what they want you NOT to do, if that makes sense. As O’Rourke noted, “Another distinctive quality of manners is that they have nothing to do with what you do, only how you do it.”

Cue the indictment, where the whole world gets to read how:

I can’t begin to thank you how special you made me feel on [CM's] wedding day and on our 35th Wedding Anniversary Day all dressed up in the beautiful outfits you adorned me in on both momentous occasions.
I’m so happy we’ve been able to share so many significant milestones in our lives with you both! I truly hope your daughter will now be able to enjoy these lovely outfits and show them off on many grand occasions.

What a lovely note! What a terrible idea!

All this could have been avoided with a little carefully applied rudeness. Why, just a few unreturned phone calls, a few unwritten thank-you notes, a little less concern about the social niceties of attire, and they might not have wound up with all these gifts in the first place.

This, to misquote “Arrested Development,” is why you never leave a note.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.
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Alexandra Petri | January 23