Opinion Dear grads: This is how to write a real thank-you note

(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)
(Ellen Weinstein for The Washington Post)
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Congratulations, graduating seniors! After years of effort and anticipation, you are officially moving to the next stage of life, via a piece of paper as flimsy as it is significant: the thank-you note.

That diploma is nice, too. You might even want to get it framed. It shows you were a competent student who completed the requirements set forth by your institution. But writing a real thank-you note shows you can express gratitude, which is one of the requirements of being a competent adult.

Yes, I said a “real” thank-you note. A store-bought card, preprinted with “Thank You” on the front and inscribed with a single fill-in-the-blank sentence, might be better than no acknowledgment of a gift. At least the writer went to the trouble to find a pen.

But “Thank you for the nice [present]” barely earns a passing grade — and only because current standards have fallen so low. It’s like grade inflation but for manners.

So what’s a real thank-you note, and how do you write one? I’m glad you asked. “It’s Never Too Late to Learn a Skill You Should Already Have” happens to be the title of the commencement address no one has asked me to give.

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There are three simple rules:

(1) A real thank-you note is from a real person. It should not sound robotic or formulaic. It should be a little weird, a little particular, a little you. Every personality, even yours, has a corresponding syntactic representation. The enthusiastic exclaimer! Perhaps the hesitant questioner? The chit-chatter, whose thoughts and feelings overflow the bounds of typical sentence length, with dependent clauses and prepositional phrases dotted about here and there like eddies in the great flow of meaning. The taciturn.

(2) A real thank-you note is to a real person. Presumably you have some sort of relationship with the individual who was thoughtful enough to give you a gift in honor of your graduation. Check your note. Does it read as if you believe the gift arrived from a kind stranger? Or do you take the time to refer to your history or future with the gift giver, or to some quality of theirs that you value?

It’s ultimately their generosity that you must zero in on, though, which brings us to the final hallmark of a real thank-you note.

(3) A real thank-you note expresses gratitude. Naturally, you think, or well, duh­­ — whichever your personality dictates. But expressing true gratitude involves more than saying “thank you.” It involves articulating what you’re thankful for and why, which means you have to figure that out.

This is not always easy. Perhaps you find disappointing the dollar amount of the check you have received. Perhaps the article of clothing you have unwrapped matches another, unworn article of clothing from a matching aunt. Perhaps you have been given the last hard-sided briefcase that a member of Gen Z will ever be expected to carry. Perhaps you never could stand the pushy cheerleading of “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and now you have three copies. Oh, the doggerel you’ll donate!

Well, my young friend, this is your moment. This is when you muster your inner grown-up and stare hard enough at the fancy pen in its fancy case to see the effort another human being has made on your behalf. It’s true you’re basically a texter and you’ll never write a check in your life, but the pen is pleasingly heavy, and its quiet elegance reminds you a little of your grandmother and the gold bracelet she always wears. Some of your friends don’t even have grandmothers, or they have an ungenerous variety, and yours has always been sweet to you, whatever issues she might have had with your mom.

You get the general idea. The particulars, I’m sorry to say, are up to you. One tip: Don’t start with “Thank you for the _______.” It’s not wrong, but it will plop you right into the plodding rhythm of the rote note. Start with “Guess what I just opened!” Start with “You always come through for me.” Start with “I know just what I’m going to do with your hard-earned cash.” Start with “I hope you’ve recovered from the covid you caught at commencement.” Start literally anywhere else, and you’ll find it’s easier to get where you’re going.

Which is a place of gratitude. A gift says, “I care for you,” and a thank-you note says, “I am grateful for that care.” It’s not just an expression of gratitude; it’s a practice of gratitude, a way for you to stop and acknowledge your good fortune. Feel it and strive to make someone else feel that you do. Then you’ll have made a real thank-you note and a truly significant piece of paper.

Whoever receives it might even want to get it framed.