Do you remember when Princess Diana died? There was an avalanche of tributes from a shocked nation. Anyone who had ever met her, however fleetingly, rushed to share their memories. She was beautiful, she was approachable, she was kind, she was mischievous… and so it went on.
Amongst all the outpouring, there’s one tiny detail that has lived with me ever since. In a long article in a national newspaper, her close friend Rosa Monckton recalled a phone conversation with the Princess on her birthday, just a few short weeks before she died. When Rosa asked her what she was doing, Diana replied that she was sitting at her desk in Kensington Palace writing her thank you letters.
Rosa Monckton told this poignant story as an illustration of Diana’s loneliness: for all her stratospheric popularity she had no one to spend this most special of days with.
But I wonder if it also says something about her manners. I found myself touched to think that this Princess in her Palace took the time to send handwritten notes to friends and family who had remembered her birthday.
She could so easily have not bothered.
Just think how precious those letters will have become to the recipients in the light of what followed. Letters are keepsakes.
A handwritten thank you note speaks volumes. It’s the combination of the gratitude expressed and the trouble it takes to write with a pen on paper, to buy a stamp and walk to the post box, when it’s oh so much easier to type an email or send a text. Or worse still, an emoji. A like.
Handwriting is personal, almost as unique as a fingerprint. The sight of a loved one’s writing – on an envelope, in a file of recipes, as an annotation to the margins of a book – summons up the image of a loved one in an unparalleled way. Suddenly they’re with you… along with all the memories of other cards signed or lists written.
And if you’re lucky enough to have children in your life – nephews and nieces or godchildren perhaps – there’s the pleasure of watching their journey from barely formed letters in their tender years to an emerging individual style in their teens. (Confession time. One of my children struggled with their handwriting when they were little. Being a whizz with numbers, on at least one occasion they asked if they couldn’t send their grandparents some sums instead…)
We don’t give gifts in order to be thanked. But goodness, a thank you letter makes a difference. There may be something old fashioned about it, but a heartfelt note speaks volumes.
Receiving any personalised piece of snail mail in amongst the bills and assorted junk is rare enough these days. And that brings pleasure in itself. It says to the recipient, “I’m thinking about you… and here’s the tangible proof.”
When the letter includes a meaningful expression of gratitude… well, that’s the icing on the cake, isn’t it? Choosing a present takes time and trouble. (Well, the best ones do.) Think of the list-making and head-scratching that goes on beforehand. The choosing, the buying, the wrapping, and the posting. (OK, you can outsource some of that these days, but still…)
A thank you letter demonstrates your appreciation of all of that malarkey, especially if you can tell the giver how you are using their gift. It is a mark of respect; it shows that you don’t take that person or their present for granted. It says that you value your relationship. (It also shows thoughtfulness: you’re letting them know that their gift has safely arrived, sparing them the embarrassment of asking.)
It gives you the chance to say “let’s meet soon” or “it reminded me of our holiday together”. In other words, it allows you to bat the ping pong ball of friendship back over the net.
Of course there are times when Aunt Dinah or Cousin Fred gets it horribly wrong. You can still acknowledge the gesture and the fact that they were thinking of you and went out of their way for you. (The horrible Christmas jumper may even bring its own joy… I know someone whose friends wait on annual tenterhooks for news of his brother’s Christmas present. Last year it was a kitchen sink strainer plug. Really.) Just make sure you express your gratitude tactfully.
And if that all sounds preachy, it’s not meant to be. If you need persuading to write thank you letters… well, tell yourself that you are perpetuating an important part of our culture and contributing to a lost art. Or furnishing valuable material for your future biographer.
Better still, there’s scientific evidence to suggest that gratitude is good for the brain. So writing thank you letters is actually good for us. If we’ve learned anything from 2020 it’s that it’s worth cultivating an attitude of gratitude.