When Gratitude is Demanded

Sometimes, in being released from the tyranny of handwritten thank you notes, we find genuine gratitude and compose our most heartfelt ones.

My grandmother (God rest her soul) once drove the 7/10 of a mile from her house to mine to deliver my birthday card. I think she mainly wanted to spare the stamp, but she also wanted to see me. She called in advance and told me she’d honk the horn and I was to come out and get it, because she was having too much discomfort that day to be getting in and out of the car a lot.

“No problem,” I said, “happy to do it.” We hung up, and, as instructed I waited for her arrival.

I could respect and understand that. Although, it bears stating that at the time, I was a stay-at-home mom with my hands full. My husband was running our small-town restaurant (and by “running,” I mean he was the owner, the head chef, and the kitchen manager.) Back at home, my days and nights were lonely, devoid of adult conversation and filled with the nonstop action of a very rambunctious toddler, and a cranky, teething 4-month-old who wouldn’t nap. But still. I put everything aside and went to greet my grandmother in the driveway.

“Hi Mimi! Good to see you! How’re you doing today?” I asked as I approached her shiny, clean-as-new, perfect Cadillac.

She began complaining about her hip, her heart, her arthritis. All the usual culprits. Raised a good southern girl, I listened closely, empathized, and offered plenty of bless-your-hearts. And honestly, I didn’t mind at all because I was also living with chronic pain. I understood. Chronic pain can be all-consuming and sometimes it’s the only thing you can focus on, and you’d give anything for someone to just ‘get it.’

But then, she pivoted her complaints over to the general direction of my house and yard. She lamented the state of my lawn: “That grass has gotten way too tall… Tell your husband he needs to mow it!”

I tried to stay light-hearted. “I know. What can I say?” I offered with a shrug and a smile.

She looked at me, unfazed, like she was expecting an answer to my self-imposed rhetorical question. So I forged ahead, “Oh, Mimi. You know, he is working mighty hard running the restaurant. He practically lives there; he’s rarely home at all, and even then, it’s just to sleep.”

She quipped, “Well, he’s got to make time for that. Keeping your yard up is important. What do you suppose the neighbors must think of this unkempt, overgrown lawn?” (Though, in my defense, I must clarify that it had just rained for 3 days, and our Kentucky bluegrass/tall fescue was maybe 4 inches tall, hardly the jungle she made it out to be.)

What I really wanted to say was that I didn’t give a shit about what the neighbors thought. But I didn’t have the energy to fight that battle that day, so I acquiesced a bit. “It is overdue for a cut, and normally I’d be perfectly capable of doing it myself,” I continued.

“But, you know,” I reminded her, “I’m still recovering from my c-section and last month’s abdominal hernia repair surgery. Between all that, and the nonstop breastfeeding/pumping cycle I’m doing to keep the baby from screaming her lungs out with colic, I just can’t seem to find the time.”

She looked at me as if to imply, “Are you kidding me?” before sternly responding, “Make the time. Mow the lawn. It looks bad.”

She perked up suddenly, as if this kind of Jekyll & Hyde were a perfectly normal turn of conversation. A big, toothy smile grew on her beautifully chiseled face as she handed me my birthday card. “Happy birthday, sugar; I love you!” she said. And with that, she gave me a wink and pulled out of the driveway in her shiny, clean-as-new, perfect Cadillac.

I stood there for a moment, dumbfounded, but also quite familiar with this feeling of being insulted, shamed, and celebrated all within the same three minute exchange. It made me not want to open the card, let alone, write her a thank you note for the check that was enclosed. But I did so, because I was brought up a good, southern girl with manners. Thank you notes were non-negotiable. In fact, I seem to remember a habit of Santa Claus where, at least in my younger years, there was always a package of stationery for thank you notes included in my stocking. And they usually had to be written before I could enjoy vegging out all morning with Reese’s peanut butter cups and all my new toys.

Which brings me to right now, and the apparent dying art of the handwritten thank you note. At least, that’s what I’ve been told, that it’s a “dying art.” Internet articles, blog posts, advice columns, and comments sections tend to reveal exactly how much complaining people have left to do over the slight of not receiving a thank you note.

I’ll admit, I’ve given countless gifts over the years — engagement parties, wedding showers and weddings, baby showers and births, birthdays and holidays. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever received a handwritten, stamped and mailed thank you note. Now, I’m going to present an unpopular opinion here on a seemingly polarizing issue, that will likely lead to a fair amount of pearl-clutching. But I’m going to suggest it anyway:

If I give you a gift, you don’t have to send me a handwritten thank you note. I release you. No strings attached.

That’s right. If I give you a gift, then yes, I’m granting you release from the duty of producing handwritten thank you notes for me. In fact, I’d rather you take the time you’d spend writing a thank you note and simply pay it forward. Do a random act of kindness for someone. Disclaimer: I’m only making this offer in regards to myself. I’m fairly certain this offer is not transferable to everyone else in your life.

Why am I saying this?

Most people probably agree that in a perfect world, everyone who ever sends or gives a gift would always receive a handwritten thank you note in return. There are probably a hundred reasons why thank you notes will always be in fashion, and will always be the right thing to do. Among those reasons are 1.) it’s polite, and 2.) it lets the sender know that you appreciate it, and more practically, that you’ve received it. Which is important, because otherwise they might worry over whether their gift was lost in the mail or delivered to the wrong house. Although, I guess I could argue that insurance and delivery confirmation are things the post office provides; I don’t need a thank you note for that.

But we don’t live in a perfect world, and while writing thank you notes in some form will always be the right thing to do, I also believe that people have enough stress in their day-to-day lives that they don’t need the additional burden of being held hostage in gratitude debt. Please hear me when I say I’m not condoning the abadonment of any and all thank you notes, for ever and ever, Amen. But something I do think we should abandon is a practice I’ve noticed where people outright demand thank you notes, sometimes before you’ve even had a chance to receive the gift in the mail.

I’ve noticed this trend, particularly among online pieces with titles like ‘The Dying Art of the Handwritten Thank You Note.’ Among the comments sections are variations of these type of comments:

“I gave my niece a card and check for her birthday, and she never sent me a thank you note! When I asked about it, her mom said she had been ‘pretty busy lately.’ She wasn’t too busy to cash the check! I pointed that out to her mom and I also demanded a thank you note!”

Others appeared to favor a more passive-aggressive approach:

“When my grandchildren didn’t write me thank you notes, I sent them empty gift boxes the next year. When they still didn’t send me thank you notes, I didn’t send another gift, ever again.”

Wow. I mean… it’s one thing to gracefully and tactfully ask if someone received a gift. For all you know, they may’ve already sent a thank you note that got lost in the mail. But to passive-aggressively try and teach a lesson to a child who’s not even your child? Or, to ‘demand’ thanks? Isn’t that kind of defeating the purpose? Maybe I’m totally wrong, and these aunts and grandparents who did just that are *absolutely adored* for being such philanthropic, loving, and generously-giving individuals in the lives of their relatives.

Again, I am not anti–thank-you notes in general. There will always be the sentiment of “I spent the time/money/energy to buy you a gift and go to your shower/party/graduation. The least you can do is write me a thank-you note.” But to that, I simply want to offer this food for thought:

A gift should not come with any obligations. A gift, in its true sense of the word, should be freely given with joy on the part of the giver, as an extension of their best wishes for new chapters of life or formal occasions.

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Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

I’m hoping that when I get old, I’m not just sitting around waiting to die, feeling bitter and hoping for thank you notes. It’s one thing to appreciate a thank you note. But to me, it seems the epitome of insolence to demand a ‘thank you’ for anything.

Of course sending a thank you note is always the right thing to do. It’s polite, and it’s practical, as I mentioned. I mean, if someone doesn’t send a thank you note and fails to mention it even in passing, even if it’s an apology for not sending one, shame on them. But if the gifter gives, and then makes an intentional effort to contact the giftee, and informs the giftee they need to respond with a ‘thank you,’ then I’m going to have to conclude that the gift is all about the giver, so shame on them.

While I can relate to the sentiment of what these folks were talking about (I’ve felt slighted before by not receiving a thank you note), I still maintain that when I give a gift freely, it’s not my duty to expect anything in return, including a thank you note, especially from my own family members.

We reap what we sow. To that end, I believe that the passive-aggressive approach of the grandparents in that example, and the bluntness of the aunt will further strain relationships, causing more harm than good. When someone can’t give a gift without a side of guilt trip? It makes the gift not worth the hassle. No one wants strings attached.

There’s an extreme generational shift happening, especially between the Baby Boomers — for whom things like elementary school handwriting drills for grades were a staple — and Gen Z, who are propelled by digital fluency.

I’d wager that some of the younger Gen Zers may not have even used, much less bought a postage stamp. My kids (whose ages range from 12 to 18) are not accustomed to snail mail at all. By the time they entered elementary school, student directories with address listings were an archaic thing of the past. In order to get birthday party invitations to school friends, they had to be delivered by hand, sneakily, at lunch or recess.

Because it had fallen completely out of practice in our state before being brought back to elementary schools in 2013, my older two missed the window of opportunity for learning the art of cursive writing altogether.

By the time my older two entered high school and my youngest entered middle school, their schools had all become paperless enviornments where all “written” assignments were done online and turned in online via Google Drive. Students were issued emails through the school, and most classes either have carts of iPads or laptops, or they are BYOD (bring your own device) friendly.

Gen Zers frown upon holding clunky things like checkbooks — especially when banks already market to them on their level — where everything, from managing their banking accounts to homework to purchasing, is all done online with no one picking up a pen or piece of paper.

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Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Though I’ll continue writing my thank you notes, at the same time, I feel the need to release others from this sense of burden or duty. I know I’m likely outweighed by the majority on this by folks who think “thank you notes are the bare minimum.” But I guess for me, it’s not about a lack of gratitude, or even a lack of ability to communicate that gratitude. It’s simply that being held to an obligation during an especially busy season of life makes the gift feel less like a gift, and more like a weight.

My parents have been prime examples of this burden-free notion. My husband and I started out with making our kids, from very young ages, write thank you notes to my parents after each gift received. My parents always insisted, “It’s very sweet, but they really don’t have to send us a thank you note.” When I ignored that advice and continued forcing the kids to write thank you notes, my mom later told me that she really meant it — the grandkids were not expected to write thank you notes every holiday and birthday, because “that’s just what grandparents do. We give gifts because we enjoy it. We give with no expectations.”

It’s for that very reason that to this day, my kids still send my parents the longest, most thought-out and most sincere thank you notes. It’s why they write and mail thank you notes to my parents before anyone else, because those are the easiest ones to write. They’re the ones my kids are happy to write. And they do so willingly, without me having to tell them. I can see it on their faces and I can say confidently: It’s simply because they were released from the tyranny of written thank you note duty that they feel even more compelled to write them.

Written by

Seen in HuffPost, Scary Mommy, etc; heard @ NPR, SiriusXM, TIFO podcast & more. Gender dismantling trailblazer. Political news junkie. TikTok aficionado. Mom.

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