We Need a New Etiquette for Thank-You Notes

You have to thank the gift-givers immediately. But you also have to thank them correctly.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

There are two major occasions on which a grown-up receives piles and piles of presents: a wedding and the birth of a first baby. Unlike wedding gifts, which bestow on two adults nicer versions of household items they already own, baby gifts are actually necessary. Infants may not require as much stuff as the Baby Industrial Complex (“Big Baby”?) wants us to believe, but they do have needs: diapers, cribs, tiny items of clothing, oddly shaped pillows, mini nail clippers, breast-milk bags, and beyond.

So my husband and I were grateful as packages of infant accoutrements started to arrive at our house this past summer in anticipation of the birth of our first child. I got to know the UPS guy by name (Joe), and I became a pro at breaking down cardboard boxes. But I also ran into a small but sticky quirk of etiquette: Should I text an acknowledgement of the gift to its sender before sending a proper thank-you note? What happens when digital relationships meet analog etiquette rules?

I live on a gravel road in northern New England, many states away from most of our family and friends. But it’s 2015, so this rural idyll feels far from isolated—I’m able to share photos and jokes and personal news with my favorite people all day long. The tempo of these relationships is speedy: Snap a funny photo, email/text/tweet/Facebook it, LOL, repeat. That tempo complicated things, though, once I started to receive baby gifts in the mail from these far-flung pals. My instinct was to thank the giver immediately, but also to thank them correctly. It’s a hiccup in the etiquette when the whole point of etiquette is to smooth our interactions with one another.

No solution seemed perfect. Typing out a quick “I got your gift!” message meant using up precious thank-you sentences, and it’s already hard enough to generate a note card’s worth. As Slate’s Julia Turner has written, the thank-you note is “a difficult form, only slightly less tricky than the villanelle.” A good one acknowledges the gift, discusses its future use, nods to the future, and then reiterates one’s gratitude. Hitting these marks in a way that feels natural is difficult for even the most talented among us, and that’s without adding the anticipatory text message to the program. Worse, I found texting made the note itself feel like a duty rather than a genuine expression of thanks: “I COULD just say ‘thank you’ in this email, but no, I have to save my official expression of gratitude for the hard copy.” I briefly considered skipping the nice card altogether, but stubborn etiquette expectations—and my own conscience—ruled that out. 

The other alternative—skipping straight to snail mail—still works for grandparents and far-flung cousins. But for closer connections it can be awkward. I could have multiple points of contact with these people over the course of the time it takes the note to arrive. The Emily Post Institute allows three months to send thanks for wedding gifts and a few days for Christmas presents, but even if I wrote and sent my note on the day of receipt, I could never keep pace with the speed of Wi-Fi.

This not only interrupts the natural flow of communication—staying silent on something it feels natural to mention—but it may also leave them wondering if their gifts have been lost in the mail. When I went a whopping seven days without sending a note for a gorgeous little baby dress, despite emailing back and forth with the gift-giver in the meantime about politics and gossip, he finally just asked if I’d received it. Both of us ended up feeling a little embarrassed. Somehow I had ended up pretending in one medium that the gift had never arrived, in order to properly acknowledge it in another medium.

There’s one thing I knew all the experts agree on: Handwritten thank-you notes are still elegant, warm, and absolutely necessary. When someone spends both time and money to select and send something special, there’s really no excuse for not spending 10 minutes and a 49-cent stamp to acknowledge it. Email, Facebook messages, and bitmoji are fun, but let’s face it: They’re free and easy, which makes them less valuable as gestures. But the traditional advice to write a thank-you note right away didn’t address my problem: that “right away” means different things to me and to the U.S. Postal Service. So after mailing thank-you notes as quickly as I could—no easy feat with a new baby!—I winged the rest of it, often declining to initiate contact with the gift-givers until I knew my notes had reached them. I didn’t lose sleep over this, but I never felt like I was doing the exact right thing, and it seemed weird to avoid my friends to jump through an old-fashioned etiquette hoop.

I decided to ask an expert: Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of the early 20th-century etiquette maven Emily. I was relieved to hear I’m not alone in being bugged by this predicament. She says she gets a version of this question submitted multiple times a week for her podcast, Awesome Etiquette. Post’s solution: First, go ahead and text an acknowledgement right away if it feels natural. And to avoid scooping your own note, just type something like, “Your gift just arrived! So excited to open it!” This gentle fib lets you save the more targeted enthusing (“She looks adorable in the floral onesie!”) for your proper note.

The problem with this is it might leave some gift-givers expecting a thrilled follow-up a few minutes later. When I asked around, most of my friends seem to be on board with the digital-first, analog-later routine, no demure prevarications required. “Is there anyone who minds being thanked twice for their thoughtfulness?” my friend Jeff asked. And the nice thing about our communication age is that it comes with its own new language. My friend Sarah said that for a close friend she sends a Snapchat of herself opening the gift, festooned with filters and emoji—a language no handwritten card risks imitating. Even a simple text is likelier to be more “OMG, your gift!!!” than “Dear Uncle Kyle.” And there’s one more silver lining to sending that brief teaser thanks by text: It buys you just a little more time to get the card in the mail. In the age of insta-everything, a handwritten note is still something worth waiting for.