When my parents received a thank-you letter from a good friend recently, we all read it with (I’m afraid) not affectionate pleasure but a rising sense of indignation. The trouble with the letter was its extreme banality. It had been a lovely party, wrote the friend, the food delicious and the company great. The nerve, we all thought. He must think we’re mindless, to send us such a string of clichés.
The writer must have felt a weight lift from his shoulders as he dropped his note into the postbox, but the truth was it would have been better had he never written at all. Platitudes by post are not worth the stamp.
So why did he bother? Why do any of us bother any more? The old-fashioned hand-written thank-you letter has today become a recurrent nightmare for both sender and recipient. As the tradition slowly dies, as emails become the norm, so it becomes increasingly hard for the younger generation to put pen to paper. And by the time they do get round to writing, they feel harassed and put-upon rather than grateful — and it shows in the prose. So wouldn’t we save ourselves a lot of anxiety and resentment if we just killed the convention off?
The curse of the thank-you letter can blight a friendship for ever. Take my friend Tommy, whose godfather used to send him a cheque for £50 at Christmas. Tommy says: ‘I used to feel so guilty about not thanking him for it that I would end up not cashing it and it would expire.’
To his godfather, Tommy must have seemed either callous or crazy. But the fact is that the conventional mode of thanks became such a psychological burden to him that he was crippled by the weight of his own gratitude.
Pen and ink and postage are daunting now that texts and emails have become the standard way of communicating. My younger brother even claims to have an actual phobia of post offices (he says they’re weird). For my generation, letters, if we receive them at all, often seem artificial or forced. So why can’t we settle our accounts with our parents’ friends with a simple email?
In my parents’ day, many women didn’t work, and had the morning to spend at their desks taking care of all the correspondence. But normal people don’t have time these days to settle in at their writing desks to lovingly craft their letters. They’re not at home and awake for more than a couple of hours a day. What they do produce is squeezed in between getting home from work and paying a bill or taking the bins out. No wonder their letters are cliché-ridden and deadly. And because stationery supplies in homes across England are in a woeful state, the letter-writer’s quota of energy is often used up before he or she has thought of anything to say. Once you’ve sourced an envelope, writing paper and pen, looked up the address, purchased a stamp and decided whether or not you’re on first-name terms with your correspondent, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve pulled off a massive achievement. A fatal combination of exhaustion and complacency sets in and the resulting epistle is slapdash at best. The time that’s put into the logistics could so much better be expended in thinking of something to say. Emails should not be sniffed at because the writer hasn’t bothered to find a stamp; the message will likely be better for it.
This magazine’s etiquette specialist, Mary Killen, has it on good authority that the Queen herself uses email on occasion. ‘If the Queen has dinner with President Obama and then is seeing him again four days later, the only way she can ensure that he’s received the thank-you letter in time is to use email,’ she points out.
No one is immune to the charms of a heartfelt letter — there’s nothing nicer than receiving one, but we should think of them as a bonus, not a given. The bread-and-butter letter must be saved from going the way of the chivalrous hand kiss or the visiting card — it would be a shame if posted thank-yous became an eccentric anachronism. But to save them, we’ve got to agree that they’re not compulsory, and emails are just fine.