Sunday, December 28, 2014

The fine art of saying thank you

Today’s task is to write thank you cards for all the gifts and hospitality we have received over the Christmas period so far. I have written a list for each child, and for myself, which sets out what present they got from which friend or family member, and there are a dozen different styles of thank you cards laid out on the dining room table all ready for them – cards with thank you printed on the front, cards with their initials, cards with pictures, and cards they can decorate with stamps and inkpads. There is even nice notepaper in case they want to write someone a whole letter. And there are colored pens and pencils for those more artistically driven. There are even stamps and airmail stickers too – for once, I am that organized!

This is something we do after every Christmas and after every birthday, so it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. And I am proud to know that I have three amazing writers here – my kids are already very successful poets, novelists, screen writers, playwrights and journalists – so writing a handful of single-sided thank yous should not tax them at all. Lucky me!

Yet, when I told one of my kids (I won’t tell you which one) last night what we would be doing first today, I was met with, “But writing thank you cards is boring!” and my heart sank. Have I truly failed, in all these years of writing thank yous, to get them to understand what an important life skill to have this is? Clearly I have.

But then I wondered whether I was the same at 13, moaning about wasting a morning saying thank you for something I could have been playing with instead. I must ask my parents about that. And I must also say thank you to them too, not only for the cool jacket they bought me this Christmas, but also for instilling in me the desire to be grateful for other people’s generosity, and to remember to show it. I know for sure that this habit of writing to say thank you was because all through my childhood they set out the thank you cards, envelopes and lists of gifts for me, and coached me on the best kind of wording and the right way to address an envelope. It is because of their teaching that I place such value on writing – and receiving – thank you cards. And I also know for sure that the vast majority of other people were not lucky enough to have parents doing that same thing for them. Sadly.

I know that, because I can tell you straight away of only one person who without fail has written and mailed a thank you card after every single event he came to at our house. In fact, since he moved away to another state this year and therefore did not come to our Christmas party (though 120 other people did), I actually noticed that the December mail did not bring the usual lovely handwritten note from him thanking us for including him in our gathering and saying how much he enjoyed knowing our family and always feeling that he was welcome in our home. James, if you ever read this – I’ve missed you!

Obviously, I have no right to have a go at those non-card writers I know – and of course I was grateful for the couple of texts and emails that I received to say thank you – but I will allow myself the indulgence of some frustration after the two training courses I gave earlier this year to some mature students. In both training sessions, I stressed the importance of saying thank you, both in their professional lives and personally. What little effort does it take to drop someone a quick note – electronically or in hard copy – to say you appreciated their time, effort and hospitality when they had done something kind for you or had included you in their party? And how big is the impact on the recipient of that thank you, to know that someone was grateful and was not too busy or lazy to let them know? In fact, I stressed this point at least five times in each session, and yet, do you know how many thank yous I received afterwards?


So that set me wondering whether these students (not self-centered teenagers, they were all in their twenties and thirties) had actually paid as little attention to everything else I had been instructing them on. Oh well, time will tell.

So I am heading downstairs now to herd my kids to the dining room, cracking the whip while they moan their way to the table. But I also know that once they get going, this exercise in sharing their gratitude will silence their moans and they will begin to realize how much they received, that it is kind to say thank you. What they might not yet understand, however, is that they are also learning the fine art to saying thank you.

But one day, I know for sure that they will be asking me where the cards are kept because they have a thank you they really want to write.