Skip to main content

When it's OK to say 'thank you' via e-mail

Decades ago, everyone had neat little stationery to pen, or type, thank you notes. Today thank yous are more complicated.
Decades ago, everyone had neat little stationery to pen, or type, thank you notes. Today thank yous are more complicated.
  • Gratitude is not optional, but in the digital age you have many means of expressing it
  • If you receive a present in the mail, use snail mail to say thank you
  • For a gift received in person, an e-mail follow up is fine

Editor's note: Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Bartz are the sarcastic brains behind humor blog and book Stuff Hipsters Hate. When they're not trolling Brooklyn for new material, Ehrlich works as an associate editor at and Bartz is news editor at Psychology Today.

(CNN) -- Sound the trumpets! We're mere weeks away from Memorial Day, moving inchworm-style toward the unofficial season of gift exchange: weddings, bridal showers, anniversaries, housewarmings, graduations -- and doesn't it seem like an awful lot of people have birthdays this month?

All that present-ing, beyond making our wallets look like they've survived two weeks on the Master Cleanse diet, serves to remind us that the cost of accepting a gift into your damp and trembling paws is a big fat "thank you" in return.

Gratitude is not optional, but your means of expressing it? Seeped in choices.

This wasn't always the case -- decades ago, everyone had neat little stationery or note cards and sat at quaint little writing desks to pen elegant thank you notes with beautiful feather quills. Or something.

Now there's that in-between, the Internet, allowing us to express our appreciation with new speed (and without the general annoyance of having to actually look up someone's mailing address). A note of thanks now comes in pixels or ink.

[Note: One digital form of thank you is almost never OK: The Facebook message. For acts of generosity that are large enough to warrant a written thank you, a Facebook gracias -- lost amidst the reminders of tomorrow's chili cook-off and that weird concert where the band name's all symbols and triangles and the band's all cymbals and triangles -- would never suffice. However, a general note of gratitude on your wall is fine for mass-thanking all the people who birthday-bombed you or wished you luck on your first 5K or whatever.]

The ISP vs. USPS confusion has infected all sorts of gratitude-sparking exchanges. When to favor the e-indebtedness, and when to go old-school? Behold our handy guide. You can thank us later.

For a present you got in the mail: Send a card.

The anachronistic and inappropriately pink Discman that Grandma sent you for your b'day? Be grateful she wasn't there to see your look of disappointment and alarm when you ripped past the bubble wrap.

Now be grateful she's still around and cognizant enough to send you a present, you selfish jerk. (And don't be too hard on her -- about seven out of 10 people have regifted a not-quite-right present, suggesting many of us suck at finding the perfect gift, according to a 2009 poll).

Regardless, a handwritten note is critical here -- it signals that you care enough to dig an ancient Bic from behind the jumble of computer cords, to track down stamps, to put the flag at full mast on your mailbox, and so on. The note can be short -- the important thing is the act, above and beyond the message.

For a present received in person: Send an e-mail.

Emily Post may disagree, but if you've thanked the giver profusely in person, and you don't know him or her to be supertraditional and judgy, you're pretty much set.

The truly compu-courteous move, though, for you Netiquette devotees, is to send an e-mail reiterating your gratitude.

No need to follow the slightly stiff formula of thank you notes ("Thank you for the ___" + comment about how you will use it + personal comment about seeing one another again or whatever + "Thanks again"), just loosen up and take a paragraph or two to relay your excitement over the superawesome iPad cover that looks like a first-bound copy of "The Virgin Suicides." (And if it wasn't that awesome -- lie.)

For an out-of-the-ordinary dinner or show: Consider the gracious host.

So your good friend's parents were in town last week and volunteered to take a group of you out to dinner for tapas and awkward conversation. Or your girlfriend's cousins invited you along on a family outing to see a touring production of "Cats."

Follow-up thank yous are obviously in order, but the delivery method depends on the age of the big spenders.

People, say, middle-aged and older generally expect cards, while younger folks will appreciate the e-mail.

And let's be honest: Upon getting an actual, physical card, we young'ns generally just don't know what to do with it anyway -- save it? Trash it? Tuck it into the creepy feline-covered playbill and stash it deep in a closet, never to be seen again?

After a job interview: Send an e-mail, then a card.

The one-two punch is a totally underutilized move in the job-getting tango. But it's more than worthwhile: Giving follow-up thanks can boost your odds of snagging an offer by up to 20%, according to a new CareerBuilder survey.

Within 24 hours of an interview, send a carefully written and proofread e-mail thanking the employer for her time, reiterating your interest in the position, and, if necessary, adding a sound bite or two to help seal the deal.

(You choked up when she asked you to name your favorite sociologist of the 20th century? Now's your only second chance.)

That same day, drop a handwritten, formula-following thank you card in the mail. Write neatly or get a ghostwriter if need be -- your serial-killer handwriting won't win any hearts.

Now, poof, two to three days later she'll get a gentle reminder that you're conscientious and courteous. And just in time for the season of Summer Fridays and beach house vacations, the position will be yours.

You're welcome.


Most popular Tech stories right now