Sunday, January 09, 2005

A simple 'thank you' accomplishes so much

For the Concord Monitor

"Last week, after the Christmas gifts had been put away and the last of the leftovers consumed, I sat down at the oak table in my dining room with my list, fountain pen and note cards to write thank-you notes.

It wasn't long before I was transported, as I often am when I undertake this chore, to the kitchen of the house where I grew up. The table I sat at then had a red Formica surface edged with aluminum. My mother was often in the room baking or cooking dinner. And I was faced with a list, a pen and note cards.

Even then I understood why a thank-you note was needed sometimes. My father's boss often sent a gift, and when my mother asked, 'How will he know you received it and liked it if you don't tell him?' I could see her point. So, while I grumbled, I wrote.

'But what about Aunt Bernie and Uncle Al?' I'd argue. Aunt Bernie worked in a factory that made pajamas, and my Christmas present every year was a pair of warm flannel pj's. Aunt Bernie and Uncle Al spent every Christmas Eve with us; they were there when I opened their gift, and they had been thanked and hugged as enthusiastically as a child who has just received pajamas for Christmas could manage.

My mother would sigh. 'Manners,' she'd say. 'When someone goes out of his way to do something nice for you, it's polite to say thank you in writing. Just get it done.'
She was right, of course, and I've had plenty of reasons as an adult to be grateful for that early training. And I've received more than enough thank-you notes myself to be able to attest to the lift they can give to the spirit of the giver.

For 35 years, I was a teacher. Notes from students written on stationery, on index cards, on pages torn from spiral notebooks have long since overflowed their drawer in my antique desk. College freshmen wrote their thanks for being disciplined as writers. Students wrote their gratitude for a lesson that spoke to them, for having someone listen, for being understood. Sometimes a parent would write about a change in confidence or ability visible in a son or daughter and say, 'Thank you.'

On days in those 35 years when I was exhausted and out of ideas and it seemed nobody wanted to buy what I had to sell, I would sit on the floor by that desk, pull out a random handful of those notes and read myself back into the optimism without which good teachers cannot function. Those notes, some written no doubt during a few odd moments in study hall, had an impact far greater than their writers could know.

So is it worth it, in this age of e-mail and voice mail and instant message, to fight the battle of the thank-you notes with our kids?

You bet it is, and here's why:

First, on the practical side, it will help turn our kids into writers. Practice still makes perfect, and the emotions and abbreviated spellings that dot our e-mails are not acceptable in college application essays, academic papers and most adult writing.

In addition, the thank-you letter itself is far from obsolete. Many career counselors urge job applicants to write their thanks for an interview, for example. And a professional's career network is created in part by gratitude expressed for an introduction to a prospective employer or a term of mentoring.

Second, writing thank-you notes, even under duress, reinforces the habits of awareness of others and gratitude that are the foundation of good manners.

One of the most impeccably mannered Americans in my lifetime was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. When she died, Time magazine published an article about her that included the observation that her manners 'were the tribute she paid to those who shared the world with her.' In other words, she behaved as if every human being deserved respect. My mother called this behavior 'manners'; others have called it 'grace' or 'tolerance' or 'humanity.'

And there are, certainly, worse habits than saying 'thank you' to a harried clerk at the deli counter or to the neighbor who took your sheets off the line when it started to rain.

Third, and most important, writing our thanks makes us aware of what the world doesn't owe us but provides anyway.

The first gifts we recognize as such come wrapped in colored paper and tied up with bows. Hopefully, we grow from that stage to an awareness of gifts that don't come in packages: a job that brings satisfaction as well as money, a shared conversation about something that matters, a hand with a spare tire in the breakdown lane of a busy highway.

I even find myself wondering, as I seal my notes, if people who have learned to recognize and be grateful for the small gifts that arrive almost daily are not only more polite than their fellows but actually happier.

The people I've known who saw the world as owing them all sorts of things were perpetually whining about its failure to deliver them. The people who understand that they are owed very few things - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come to mind - are often more aware of the good things life has provided. They're grateful for them all, and they say so."

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