how to | write thank-you, condolences & thinking of yous

not too long ago, it was my mother in law's birthday. i picked a beautiful art card out of my collection for her and placed it in front of my husband. i walked away to do some chores and when i came back to the card, it was still empty, waiting.

why? because my husband is one of those people who finds himself daunted by a blank card. it's not that he doesn't love his mother. if anything, he loves her so much that he is overwhelmed by the pressure to find just the right words. he's not alone in his fear. i can't tell you how many colleagues i know who find themselves stumped when a birthday or sympathy card gets passed around the office. or female friends who whine about their own procrastination when it comes time to send wedding or shower thank-yous. i myself struggle with bulk mail outs because i feel the urge to make each one unique.


there are hundreds of occasions in which to send a note or card and many of them are not marked on a calendar. i think i always knew this subconsciously but was tickled to see clearly marked boxes when i worked at a stationery store. there were obvious ones like birthdays, weddings and valentines; and less obvious celebrations such as retirement, baptism and bon voyage;. my favourite box was entitled "just for fun." beyond that, each group was divided into categories such as baby girl, baby boy, gay weddings and birthdays greetings from multiple people.

this may seem obvious to you, but i will list below* possible occasions (i use this term loosely) just in case it hadn't occurred to you to give a card or write a note on one of them.

to consider

why are you doing this?
if it's only because you feel obligated, then don't bother. your words will not be heartfelt or genuine. if you are writing this note because you feel something or are overwhelmed, don't be afraid to express that.

why should you do this?
-because nobody does it anymore
-because it will stand out against a text message or email. it's even clearer than verbal
-to practice your hand-writing
-as dale carnegie explains, the need to feel appreciated is just as important as our need for food, shelter etc.
-it's good karma

don't be frightened by a blank page 
easier said than done so start by writing their name and signing yours. and don't feel as if you have to write the perfect sentiment - personal is better than perfect

don't ignore the envelope 
yes, i have an obsession. but the envelope is the gift wrap for your card or letter! write the recipients name, draw a little picture, liven it up with some washi tape and add a seal or sticker. it turns your card into a gift.

consider where you will write on the card
do you have a lot to say? if yes then start at the very top (horizontal card) or the far left (vertical card). don't have a lot to say? too bad, you should write enough to moderately fill one side of the fold (don't be this guy). think about the cards you have received in which the person wrote only "happy birthday" and signed their name. a touch lazy yes?

don't let the card do the talking for you.
i say this time and time againit's wonderful that someone else is clever enough to make your niece/friend/lover laugh or cry but don't let it be a stand in for how you feel. i am forever being chastised for skipping to the inside of greeting cards i've been given. my husband says "hey, you didn't read the poem!" and i say "sorry, i'm more interested in what our friend has to say." if you really want to be a winner, emulate my aunt keke - who not only buys a high quality card, she picks one which is personalized and humourous. she then writes a detailed note which takes up the entire left hand side of the fold.

the importance of the message

call them by name
always begin your note with the recipient's name. not only will it end up in the right hands, but it will show a sense of respect and avoid feeling like a form letter. in the book "women, work and the art of savoir faire" mireille guiliano describes how one of her employees found more success with his clients once he began his notes by name and included personal details about the recipient.

small talk
although this isn't always necessary, particularly on a thank-you, it's just good manners to mention the time of year/the weather/the recipient's health or whatnot before moving on to the subject at hand.

answer questions
writing a letter or a card to let someone know you are thinking about them is similar to looking at art. whenever i'm interacting with children and art i ask them simple questions like these. i find writing something can be easier when you are simply answering a question so here a few in the same vein that you could try answering:

1. why are you writing? (i.e "to say thanks", "to express sincere gratitude/sympathy etc")
2. what are you writing about? (that casserole they baked, dinner they hosted, gift they gave or person they lost)
3. how does their generosity/gift/loss/presence in your life make you feel? (i.e. "we left your party with full spirits and full bellies!" or "i was overwhelmed to receive such a unique gift!"
4. what will you do? this can be applied in different ways. what will you do with their gift? what do you look forward to doing the next time you see this person? what will you do to help this person in their time of need??

avoid clichés
this is a great resource for writing notes of sympathy and condolence but what stands out for me the most is to avoid clichés. this includes "she's in a better place" and "he's at peace now." although you may believe such platitudes, unfortunately overuse means they cause feelings of friction for many. here are some examples of something honest and specific you could write: "your mother was such an energetic and warm woman" or "i would like to come over next week and do some cleaning so you can relax after your surgery."

formula but not formulaic
to summarize, i'll include a simple list here for how your message might be written. however, try to ensure that the things you are writing don't sound formulaic, disingenuous or stiff.
1. greet by name
2. small chat
3. personal detail (about them)
4. thank-you/condolence/message
5. personal detail (about you)
6. special sign off
7. legible name

to make this clearer, i'll write an example letter with the same number points below:

1. to my wonderful mother,

2. i hope this letter made it out to you in the country! though i realize of course, that i could just hand you this note, it wouldn't have quite the same effect. 3. i know this will be a nice surprise for you when you check the mail after one of your long night shifts at the hospital! 4. thank-you for all of your help with the baby this month. 5. when you watch him while i work i feel so relaxed and i know for a fact that he loves to spend time with you!

6. thanks again, hope to see you soon,
7. kaitlyn

legible name
one last suggestion, is to sign off legibly. my husband always scrawls his name next to mine and it looks more like a scribble and less like an actual word. it's not a cheque you're signing, so go ahead and print your name clearly. this makes the card or letter a nice memento for future perusals. this is also important when signing a baby shower or wedding card. new mothers and brides and grooms will be sifting through a number of greetings and will not only want to know who a particular gift or thought is from - they will want to know who to thank!

final tips
-always keep some stamps on hand (you'd be surprised how long you can put off going to the post office!)
-keep a general and beautiful pack of notecards in the house *or try writing paper!
-don't worry about occasion cards so much - it's really the action that matters not the specificity
-include the date as people often look back on written items and wonder when they are from
-if you see the perfect card, get it even if it's not needed right away (especially sympathy cards, as grabbing those last minute is not ideal. there are too many cliché and inappropriate options)
-try to be timely. as annette benning says in the film the kids are all right "you don't want to start a thank-you with an apology" (for lateness)

*friendship, miss you, love, break-up, engagement, wedding shower, wedding, divorce, anniversary (to them, from me to you), new home, pregnancy, baby shower, bachelorette, new baby (girl, boy, adoption, twins), baptism, christening, communion, birthday (special age, belated, group) bat mitzvah, bar mitzvah, graduation, new job, thank-you, thinking of you, valentines day, mother's day, st. patrick's day, easter, father's day, thanksgiving, halloween (did you catch my sly canadian positioning just there?), christmas, new year's eve, encouragement, congratulations, invitation, apology, hello, goodbye, good luck, bon voyage, sympathy, get well, retirement.

ah, the circle of life.

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