Do you dread a holiday hangover — not from sugar or alcohol, but from the good fortune of receiving gifts? If you struggle with whether and how to say thank you for gifts, you are not alone.
I grew up in a culture that valued thank-you notes. Not just saying the words “thank you,” but formal written things called “thank-you notes.” When I was a kid and forgot to send a note, my grandmother wrote me a letter to express her concern. Her words said: “I just want to know if you got the gift.” And she probably did want to know. But the subtext was clear: Notes should be written.
Some of my friends who grew up with thank-you notes have freed themselves entirely. Other friends never had this ritual. And some carry it on beautifully and with pride. For my part, I’ve wavered and struggled and interviewed others to try to find happy solutions.
Writing formulaic notes can feel like the epitome of tedious life admin — the office work of life. For an explanation of life admin, see my earlier post. (And for those who’ve kindly inquired about the status of my computer problems, discussed in that post, so far I’m riding along successfully with the Admin Avoider strategy of trusting that my computer won’t act up again.)
After conducting interviews and brainstorming sessions with over 100 people, and discussing life admin with many more, I have drawn a few lessons about thank-yous.
1. Forgoing formal thank-you notes works well for some people and some relationships.
Not all gifts are appreciated. Some are even thinly veiled criticism. (Think ear-hair clippers or slimming undergarments.) Many more gifts are simply thoughtless or routine gestures or essentially business transactions. Trying to turn these transfers into moments of deep connection with an unsuitably heartfelt reply can seem bizarre. And even when gifts are perfectly generous, some may wish to avoid thank-you formalities.
Compulsory note writing could be replaced by a wide range of alternative practices — including, for some, by agreements to express the closeness of a relationship by deciding to skip the thank-you notes. (My mom and I did this once.) Both would know that their closeness enabled this arrangement.
2. We can opt to make saying thanks take less time — and even add value
Along the way, I’ve decided that, for me, finding a way to express my appreciation is usually Admin That’s Worth It. But saying thanks for thoughtful gifts need not require vast time or energy.
For instance, sending a photo of a gift, once opened, lets the giver know you received it — and sooner than a handwritten note. It can even show the giver how you’re using it (or wearing it) or perhaps give back a little beauty (this works well for flowers).
3. We can add meaning to our thank-you rituals.
Studies show that gratitude is good for us, as discussed in my earlier post on the giving of gifts. When we receive gifts, we can also make a practice of gratitude. Research supports the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal, where you jot down a few things you’re grateful for every day. This journaling could be paired with composing your thank-yous.
More informally, just thinking for a moment about why you’re grateful could turn the mundane into the meaningful. If you decide to say why you appreciate the giver, in addition to the gift, you could add exponential value. (For a moving account of the impact such communication can have, see this report by a teacher who got her students to write one thing they liked about each other.) I see gratitude practice as part of overcoming our negativity bias and thus of seeing more clearly — a story for another day.
4. Kids can add their own value.
For those with kids, what’s the best way to raise them into a sincere and admin-conscious culture of gifting and appreciating? Perhaps the tenor of the gift should be reflected in the response, and the experience of the thank you — for receiver and giver both — should matter more than formalities.
Writing notes, or at least signing them, might be meaningful for a child just learning to write. Choreographing a thank-you video might be playful and even artistic, depending on the kid. As parents know, though, getting kids to produce thank-yous can be truly tedious. One strategy I’ve used, when gift opening can be spread out, is for kids to compose their thank-yous before they get to open the next gift.
Simpler still is sending photos or short videos of children opening the gifts. If you opt for videos rather than pictures, though, remember that videos take time to watch — delightful for some, but admin for others.
5. A little forethought can help.
If you are going to send thank-yous, keep track during present-opening, to avoid the holiday hangover of wondering who gave what. Taking a photo of the gift and the gift tag is an easy way to avoid later confusion and list-making.
And if we follow our same old ritual, comforting and familiar, we can find new ways to add appreciation — even pleasure — to this work. With that in mind, I’ve just ordered some notecards with orchid photographs, so I can squint at something beautiful in the bleary aftermath of the holiday season.
© Elizabeth Emens, 2018. All rights reserved.
Emmons, Robert A., & McCullough, Michael E. (2003). "Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84(2): 377-389.
Barbara Frederickson, Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life (New York: Three Rivers, 2009), 41–42, 92–93, 186–87.